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A Second Language Keeps the Brain Nimble

NSF Award:

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Bilingual Advantages in Executive Control  (University of Kentucky Research Foundation)

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Humans can effectively switch attention between two or more ongoing tasks. This kind of cognitive flexibility allows for successful navigation of the demands of everyday life, but it declines with age. Brian Gold at the University of Kentucky has carried out research that suggests that switching between two languages across a lifespan protects against age-related declines in perceptual switching by maintaining the functional efficiency of frontal brain regions.  

Because seniors who are lifelong bilinguals showed relative preservation of the ability to switch between two perceptual tasks compared to seniors who are monolingual, this study demonstrates the influence of neuroplasticity in aging. It also spotlights the relationship between second language learning and neurobiology, an issue of fundamental relevance in our increasingly multilingual society.

The research study included four groups: 20 young adult monolinguals, 20 young adult bilinguals, 20 senior monolinguals, and 20 senior bilinguals. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was performed while subjects completed a perceptual task switching experiment. In a visual shape task, participants decided if a stimulus was a circle or square. In a color task, participants decided if a stimulus was red or blue. In a switching task, participants alternated between shape and color decisions.

As expected, seniors were slower than young adults when they had to switch between the two tasks. However, bilingual seniors were faster at switching than their monolingual peers. The fMRI results showed that all groups used a network of brain regions to switch between perceptual tasks, prominently involving frontal regions on both sides of the brain.

Compared to younger subjects, older subjects showed greater activation in frontal regions, likely reflecting an attempt at compensation for declining cognitive efficiency. However, bilingual seniors outperformed monolingual seniors despite showing less activation in several of these frontal regions.

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  • brain region networks used while switching tasks
Brain region networks used during task switching range from highly active (yellow) to least active (red).
Brian Gold, University of Kentucky

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