Good News for Adult Learners: Studies Show that Adult Brains are Primed for Learning

By: Jenna Savage

Children’s brains function in a way that makes it easy for them to absorb new skills, quickly and efficiently. As has been proven by previous studies into the human brain, children’s brain cells form new synapses — which are responsible for cell communication and the acquisition of skills — frequently, which enables them to learn new things with ease. According to a recent article in Science Daily, this is why essential skills like walking and talking are learned in early childhood. As the brain matures, it stabilizes the synapses, and ensures that the skills learned in childhood carry on into adulthood. Some synapses then start to inhibit, rather than excite, cell activity, and learning slows down.

However, inhibitory activity in a brain is not an end-all for learning in adults. Science Daily reports that a study conducted by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and published in the journal Neuron has proven that adult brains, when pushed to learn new skills, lose some inhibitory synapses in favor of increased brain activity. As the brain learns, new synapses are formed in the place of the old, inhibitory synapses.

Researchers conducted the study by injecting mice with florescent proteins, which tracked brain activity. When the mice were impaired by having one of their eyes closed, their brains adapted, formed new synapses, and began to actively respond to the open eye. The mice’s brains stopped enough inhibitory activity to allow them to strengthen their ability to see through only one eye.

While inhibitory activity in the brain is necessary for regulating brain activity and preventing it from overloading, the brain’s ability to change, prune, and redirect synapse activity is excellent news for adult learners. Attempting to acquire new skills may be difficult at first, but some dedication can lead to positive results. Adult students can feel more confident that their hard work will pay off as long as they continue to practice studying and performing the new skills they are trying to learn.

Science Daily also reports that this discovery may give patients with neurodevelopmental and psychological disorders some hope. It is theorized that individuals with epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia, and other disorders may struggle with the development of inhibitory synapses. But if the brain is capable of rerouting the synapse work, even into adulthood, then it may be possible for new medicines and other interventions to address this specific area, and encourage more regulation.

Though the thesis that the brain can develop and change, even into adulthood, is not necessarily new, concrete evidence of this ability proves that the brain can be primed for learning, even as individuals age. As Dr. Norman Doidge wrote in The Brain That Changes Itself: “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.”