As a child, were you liable to shirk or embrace time spent practicing at the piano? Researchers 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% 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 is the first to document that an increase in white matter is linked to the pursuit of a motor skill. Previously, researchers discovered that the gray matter of taxi drivers grows when they memorize the streets of their city and published these results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These findings contradict those of a previous study in which neuroscientists concluded that juggling-related gray-matter gains disappeared after four weeks of inactivity. The Oxford researchers observed no such decrease in their sample.
Says Dr. Heidi Johansen-Berg of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Oxford University, “We have demonstrated that there are changes in the white matter of the brain — the bundles of nerve fibers that connect different parts of the brain — as a result of learning an entirely new skill.
“Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone should go out and start juggling to improve their brains. We chose juggling purely as a complex new skill for people to learn. But there is a ‘use it or lose it’ school of thought, in which any way of keeping the brain working is a good thing, such as going for a walk or doing a crossword.
“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.”
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.