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Taxi Drivers’ Brains Change Once Learning A City Map

December 9, 2011

According to new research, the structure of a taxi drivers’ brain actually changes during their training on how to navigate through a city’s streets.

The researchers studied taxi drivers in London, which is a city that consists of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks.

Trainees can take three to four years to learn the complicated streets and landmarks, and they must acquire what is known as “the Knowledge.”  The trainees must pass a series of exams, only half of which ultimately pass.

Previous studies by Eleanor Maguire of University College London found that taxi drivers had more gray matter in the back part of a brain structure called the hippocampus compared to non-taxi drivers.

This part of the brain plays an important role in memory and spatial navigation.  The previous studies suggested that the brain might have changed in order to accommodate an internal “map” of London.

Maguire and colleagues in the new study directly examined this idea by following a group of trainee taxi drivers and non-taxi driver controls.  They captured images of their brain structures over time and tested their memory.

The participants showed no difference in either brain structure or memory at the beginning of the study, but three to four years later they found an increase in gray matter in the back part of the hippocampus.

“The human brain remains ‘plastic’ even in adult life, allowing it to adapt when we learn new tasks,” Maguire said in a press release. “By following the trainee taxi drivers over time as they acquired–or failed to acquire–’the Knowledge,’ we have seen directly and within individuals how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation.”

The team believes the findings may reflect an increase in the rate at which new neurons are generated and survive when facing a significant cognitive challenge.

Maguire said that the findings add to evidence that learning changes the adult brain and should come as encouraging news for life-long learning.

The research was published in the December 8 edition of Current Biology.

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports