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The University of Southampton

Speaking a second language could protect the brain from cognitive decline in later life.

Published: 1 October 2021

A new study by researchers in the Faculty of Medicine suggests learning a second language could protect the brain from cognitive decline in later life.

The study, published in the Journal of Anatomy, was a semi-systematic meta-narrative review of 137 articles regarding the neuroanatomical or pathological implications of bilingualism.

The review found that bilingualism induces significant gray and white matter cerebral changes, particularly in the frontal lobes, anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule and subcortical areas of the brain, and that first and second languages largely recruit the same neuroanatomical structures.

The researchers believe that there is adequate evidence to suggest that bilingualism could offset the symptoms and diagnosis of dementia, and that it is protective against both pathological and age-related cognitive decline.

Charlie Taylor, medical student and member of the Soton Brain Hub, led the study and said: “In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of people who are able to speak two or more languages, which has increased the amount of research related to bilingualism. However, much of the neuroanatomical consequences and pathological implications of bilingualism are still subject to discussion.

“We wanted to evaluate the neuroanatomical structures related to language and a second language as well as exploring how learning a second language can alter one's susceptibility to and the progression of cognitive declines.

“In Alzheimer's Disease, grey matter volume often declines in the anterior hippocampus, the Para-hippocampus, and the precuneus. The neuronal changes induced by bilingualism promote diffuse brain area integration which may prevent this pathological cognitive decline.

“More research is needed to explore the causality of bilingualism and other neurological conditions.”


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