Pints and Plasticity

On Tuesday afternoon in New York City, science enthusiasts gathered at Ryan’s Daughter, a bar on the upper east side. It is also one of the many locations of “A Pint of Science,” an annual science festival that takes place for three days in May, in various locations around the country. The premise of the festival is to give adults an outlet for learning about science in a fun and casual environment.

pintofscience aoki

The evening’s focus was on brain plasticity, which is the brains ability to adapt and change throughout life. Chiye Aoki, professor of neural science and biology at NYU, explained her work concerning learning and synapse formation. Synapses play a role in the connectivity of neurons. Synapse formation happens throughout life, and is a key component in learning.

Her passion for this topic came from childhood experiences. As a Japanese-American, she learned English as a child, only to be uprooted to Tokyo at the age of five. As her Japanese improved and her English faded, her family moved back to the US when she was 11.  At this point, her English was nonexistent, and she was in the same boat as she was when she first went to Japan. Aoki’s fascination with the ability to “forget the mother tongue twice” jump-started her career. Her experiences, she explained, could actually be categorized into a phenomenon that happens to many beings.

Much of Aoki’s research concerns the critical period– the time when humans have the capability to learn any language with ease. After this period, she explained, we lose the ability to hear these subtle differences between languages, and it becomes much harder to learn. She pointed out her father’s difficulty in differentiating “L” and “R,” because Japanese has a different set of tones from English.

However, as she enthusiastically stated, there is still room for plasticity even after the critical period.

Currently, Aoki is studying the effects of exercise and the role it plays in brain plasticity.

A molecule called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has been found to help with the formation of new synapses. Aoki’s research has shown that there is a tight correlation between exercise and BDNF generation. While humans might not be able to form new neurons, extra synapse formation and maintenance is possible with a healthy dose of exercise. More synapses in the brain created added flexibility in humans’ ability to continue learning, far past the critical stage.

The importance of exercise and the brain has been vetted often by neuroscientists. For further studies on synaptic formation and exercise, click here.

– Celina Sooksatan

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