White Matter

In 2014, Brown University reported some significant–yet widely unheralded–research concerning the way older brains accept and process new information:

Brain scientists have long believed that older people have less of the neural flexibility (plasticity) required to learn new things. A new study shows that older people learned a visual task just as well as younger ones, but the seniors who showed a strong degree of learning exhibited plasticity in a different part of the brain than younger learners did.

In short, the stereotype about older learners not being able to process and retain new information is incorrect. The difference is in how the older brain takes-in this information: It appears that the older brain has managed to accommodate a loss of plasticity in the brain’s cortex by forming new white matter. The study’s lead authors–The University of Tokyo’s Yuko Yotsumoto and Brown University’s Li-Hung Chang and Yuka Sasaki–explain: “White matter is the the brain’s ‘wiring,’ or axons, sheathed in a material called myelin that can make transmission of signals more efficient.”

More research needs to be undertaken to explore the reason why white matter is able to assist older learners in learning new information. However, the present findings beat-back any allegations that older individuals are limited in their ability to learn new things.


Brown University. (2014). “Many older brains have plasticity, but in a different place.” https://news.brown.edu/articles/2014/11/age. Accessed 9 November 2018.