As a child, were you liable to shirk or embrace time spent practicing at the piano? Scientists at the University of Oxford have found that dedicating yourself to the pursuit of a new skill increases the amount of white matter in your brain.
The good news is that even if you eschewed — or never opted for — piano lessons, it’s not too late to start. And you don’t have to become the next Mozart to increase your stock of white matter.
The authors of the study published in Nature Neuroscience selected juggling lessons as the basis for their experiment. Forty-eight adult volunteers served as the sample. Half took lessons weekly for a period of six weeks. At the end of that time, those who practiced the new motor skill, regardless of aptitude, showed an average increase of 5 percent in white matter, while those who did not remained as they were.
White matter is the medium through which nerve impulses travel, allowing communication between the information-processing gray matter areas of the brain.
This study documents the first recorded increase in white matter as linked to the pursuit of a motor skill. In the past, scientists have discovered that the gray matter of taxi drivers grows when they memorize the streets of their city.
The new findings also contradict those of a previous study by German scientists that concluded that juggling-related gray-matter gains disappeared after four weeks of inactivity. The British scientists observed no such decrease in their sample.
Said Dr. Johansen-Berg of the University of Oxford Department of Clinical Neurology, “Knowing that pathways in the brain can be enhanced may be significant in the long run in coming up with new treatments for neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, where these pathways become degraded.”
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