Brief navigational training is enough to change the hippocampus and how it is linked to other areas.
This is one of the first studies to suggest that learning really does cause changes to the brain’s structure.
Dr Tim Keller, the study’s first author, said:
“The hippocampus has long been known to be involved in spatial learning, but only recently has it been possible to measure changes in human brain tissues as synapses become modified during learning.
Our findings provide a better understanding of what causes the hippocampal changes and how they are related to communication across a network of areas involved in learning and representing cognitive maps of the world around us.”
For the study, people played a driving simulation game.
One group learned the same route over and over while another group learned 20 different routes.
Brain scans revealed that the hippocampi of those in the group that had learned the same route had changed.
The change was seen in the left posterior dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus central to spatial learning.
In addition, the connectivity between this region and others was increased.
Professor Marcel Just, the study’s co-author, said:
“The new discovery is that microscopic changes in the hippocampus are accompanied by rapid changes in the way the structure communicates with the rest of the brain.
We’re excited that these results show what re-wiring as a result of learning might refer to.
We now know, at least for this type of spatial learning, which area changes its structure and how it changes its communication with the rest of the brain.”
The study was published in the journal Neuroimage (Keller & Just, 2015).
Brain image from Shutterstock