The brain can be trained at any age

Nick White
July 5, 2024

This article builds upon the concepts outlined in a previous article, The prefrontal cortex and its role in brain training.

What does "brain aging" mean?

The brain has many functions, some of which include remembering, communicating, sensing hot and cold, focusing attention, and moving one’s body. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the brain is the command center for everything we need to do in order to live.

Since the brain’s mechanisms are complex, we can use a familiar metaphor: think of the brain as a computer. Generally speaking, the most important and basic specifications of a computer are its processing speed and capacity. As with computers, a human brain that can work quickly and accurately on calculations and other processes can be interpreted as a high-performing brain. If this brain-as-computer can preserve its speed and accuracy, then you could view it as a brain that never ages.

The brain functions like a desktop, whether cluttered or clear.

To further the metaphor, consider that modern computers utilize the organizational concept of a “desktop”, which is analogous to the available space on a physical desk. When we are young, we all have ample desk space, just as a brand-new computer has few objects obscuring its desktop. We can arrange a bunch of materials as need be and work at a brisk pace. However, our desks get smaller as we get older, just as a computer’s desktop gets taken up with stored items. It is hard to get work done on a tiny desk that quickly fills up with just a few notebooks and files. Moreover, the attendant decline in processing speed can discourage us from tackling the most demanding of tasks.

The part of our brain responsible for organizing and processing various information “on our desk” is called the prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe of the brain. Hence, the term “brain aging” in this context refers to the decline in function of the prefrontal cortex.

And yet, the brain can be trained at any age

We know that cognitive function peaks in our twenties and declines thereafter. However, research also shows that cognitive function can be maintained and improved at any age through various types of brain training. What is more, Professor Ryuta Kawashima and his colleagues at the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer (IDAC) at Tohoku University have proven that brain training can increase the volume of the brain.

The red and yellow-orange areas reflect the increase of cerebral cortex volume that comes with brain training.

The photo above was taken by MRI after one month of working memory training1 for 20 to 60 minutes a day. The red, yellow, and orange areas are zones where the volume of the cerebral cortex increased.

The increase in brain volume is due to changes in the length and complexity of nerve cells, and, as a result, the information transmission between nerves becomes smoother.

In addition, when Dr Kawashima’s team evaluated cognitive function during the above experiment, it was proven that a month of brain training improved the brain's ability to process information, predict, concentrate, make decisions, and even think of new things.

In other words, the team found that training the prefrontal cortex can help to improve cognitive functions such as thinking, remembering, generating ideas, controlling emotions, making judgments, and applying knowledge—regardless of age.

By training the brain, people can enjoy healthy and independent lives irrespective of their age. Furthermore, brain training can also have positive effects for all generations. For those who work, it can help improve daily efficiency and productivity; for students, it can help improve learning efficiency and memorization.

A simplified depiction of working memory adapted from the multicomponent working memory model by Baddeley, 2010. Used under CC-BY © 2018 Chai, Abd Hamid and Abdullah.

1“Working memory” refers to the ability to temporarily store information in the brain and keep it ready to be retrieved at any time. It is one of the core functions of the prefrontal cortex.

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