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Brain Health

How Older People Learn

Researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany asked test participants in different age cohorts to feel two needlepoints that were located closely to each other with the tips of their fingers. Older participants perceived two points as a single event even when they were located quite far apart, whereas younger people were still able to distinguish them as two distinct points, which is evidence for degraded tactile perception at higher age. This impaired perception experienced by older people goes hand in hand with a spatial enhancement of brain activity, which researchers generally interpret as a compensatory mechanism. The study was published in June 2016 in Scientific Reports.

Learning and training improve perception

A release from the university quotes Dr, Hubert Dinse from the RUB Neural Plasticity Lab as saying, “Age-related degraded perception is not irreversible; rather, it can be improved through training and learning.” The question researchers then asked was: if age-related impaired perception can be restored, will the age-related expansion of brain activity be reduced as well? In other words, can training and learning lead to a “rejuvenation” of the brain?

Learning too enhances brain activity

Studies with young adults have shown that learning processes are typically associated with an enhanced and broadened brain activity. If age-related impaired perception can be restored through learning, learning should have a different effect on the brain in older people than in young adults: the age-related enhanced brain activity should be reduced. Yet, as the neuroscientists from Bochum observed, the opposite is the case: learning processes in older people result in a further enhancement of brain activity too, which is associated with improved perception.

Learning to understand aging and learning processes with the computer

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