Even older human brains are adept at learning new tricks, according to research by German scientists who studied a group of over-50 subjects learning new skills - such as juggling.
A team led by Janina Boyke, from the department of systems neuroscience at the University of Hamburg, undertook a test project to teach 69 healthy German men and women between the ages of 50 and 67 to juggle.
In this case, juggling involved keeping three balls in motion for a minimum of 60 seconds - a challenge even for young and agile minds and bodies.
None of the test subjects had ever attempted to juggle before in their lives. While none of them learned to juggle with any great proficiency, brain scans showed that they had in fact learned a new skill and that their brains had structurally registered the new learning.
Learning-induced structural changes in the human brain were previously measured in young adults using high-resolution, three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging and voxel-based morphometry.
Boyke and her colleagues extended this research to show that such structural changes also occur in older adults.
As in the previous study, subjects were scanned three times: before learning to juggle, after three months of juggling, and after three additional months following the cessation of the juggling instruction.
Although the older adults did not learn to juggle as well as younger adults, those who did learn showed similar increases in grey matter in the visual motion area of their brains.
Unlike young adults, older adults who learned to juggle had increased grey matter in hippocampus and nucleus accumbens compared to controls.
As in young adults, these grey-matter changes were transient, returning to baseline after three months without practice. These results indicate that human brains retain some structural plasticity as they age.
The authors say the findings indicate that older brains can retain the youthful ability to learn new skills. However, they caution that age-linked limitations such as poorer hand-eye coordination and neural function could impede the process as people age.
In your 60s, you may not be able to become a first-rate professional juggler. But it will not be because of limitations in your brain, but because you may have arthritis and need trifocals.