Can you teach an old dog new tricks – or at least juggling – and increase gray matter density in the brain ?

A juggler entertains outdoors in Devizes, Wilt...
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You might, or might not, be an old dog – but we all want to be able keep on learning and ‘growing’.

Yesterday, I wrote about a couple papers that demonstrated how learning to juggle increased gray matter density in a particular region of the brain (middle temporal area of the visual cortex ( hMT/V5)), and that it was a transient change then went away if the participants stopped juggling. But these subjects were young – could the same juggling training also work in older subject (hence teaching old dogs new tricks).

Taking 44 mature adults (average age = 59.1) Boyke et. al., 2008 assigned them to the juggling group for the next 3 months along with 25 same aged mature adults to act as the control group. After 3 months of juggle training only 10 of the 44 juggling group were able to juggle the 3 balls for 60 seconds. Another 15 managed between 40 and 60 seconds. Now this contrasts with the earlier 2004 study that used subjects in their early 20s (avg age = 22) in which all subjects managed 60 seconds of 3 ball juggling by 3 months. In the follow up 2008 study (freely available here) using subjects with an average age of 26.5 it appears all 20 subject were able to juggle the 3 balls for 60 seconds by 7 days (and they managed 3 minutes by 6 weeks).

The aged jugglers after 3 months of juggling also displayed an increase in gray matter in the same area as the younger group (hMT/V5 area), but additionally also had an increase in the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens (which the younger group didn’t). It is possible the older group had to recruit more brain areas, or were using an alternative learning plan, to acquire the juggling skill. (The control group did not display any change in gray matter density anywhere in the brain after the 3 month period.)

They did not find any correlations between training minutes per day or ability to juggle (minutes of endurance juggling) and any of the brain area increases (similar to the previous study with younger subjects). As with the younger group, after 3 months of no juggling practice  the previously practiced induced increase in gray matter returned to baseline levels – use or lose it.

So, yes old dogs can learn new tricks – and they also can increase their gray matter – but their learning ability is reduced compared a younger group.

As the authors suggest: “As people age, they should not do less, but do more to keep and maintain their abilities.”

Now I know what I should give to all my friends for the holidays and then I can act like a fiendish scientist :) and test all my friends ability to juggle continuously (no drops) after a week, or a month or so, of consistent practice. Should make for some fun since some of my friends are very competitive.

2 comments for “Can you teach an old dog new tricks – or at least juggling – and increase gray matter density in the brain ?

  1. JB
    December 5, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    check out Tim Ferris:

    A whole TV show kinda devoted to this idea of learning new things.

  2. Ward
    December 5, 2008 at 5:07 pm


    thanks for the link. One should try to keep on learning new things. I am sure Mr. Ferris will prove entertaining to watch during his new explorations.