White matter fibres in the brain

Can learning physically alter the brain?

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Neuroscientists believe that learning and memory change the physical structure of the brain. 

Animal research shows that forming a new memory involves the strengthening of synapses in a network of neurons. The same is probably true of humans, although we still do not have the techniques to observe these changes directly in the human brain.

Learning can cause other changes in the brain, some of which can be seen in the human brain using various imaging techniques. In 2004, for example, researchers used MRI to show that learning to juggle for three months increases the density of grey matter in parts of the visual cortex specialised for processing complex visual motion.

More recently, another group of researchers showed that learning to juggle also leads to changes in the brain’s white matter tracts. Using diffusion tensor imaging, they found that it increases the density of white matter underneath the intraparietal sulcus, which is involved in several mental functions, including memory for where things are in space and perceptual–motor skills (such as hand–eye coordination).

Learning to read as an adult also causes significant changes in brain structure. In a unique study, researchers in London and Spain examined the brains of former Colombian guerrillas who learned to read Spanish after returning to mainstream society. Using MRI, they detected increases in the volume of grey matter in the left frontal and temporal lobes, both of which contain areas specialised for processing language.

Lead image:

DTI tractography image showing the white matter fibres in the uncinate fasciculus, which connects the frontal and temporal brain regions.

Christopher Whelan, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland/Wellcome Collection CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Neuroscience, Psychology
Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development