Lab Talk

College and Brain

College in the Brain

College may change the very structure of your brain, protecting your brain health as you age.

Four years of independence, socialization and higher education is a rite of passage for many Americans and the life of a coed is unabashedly exploratory. 80 percent of college students end up changing their major at least once, and the average is three changes by the time they graduate. Even those students who don’t alter their plan of study spend a lot of time in classes outside their chosen field. It isn’t unusual to learn biology in the morning, spend the afternoon in music appreciation, and stay up late studying philosophy.

On top of classes, many students participate in a wide array of extracurricular activities, many of which provide another level of mental stimulation. Band, newspaper and Model United Nations are only a few of the options available to students.

Is it worth it?

In terms of your cognitive capabilities, it might be. It turns out that going to college may do more than pin a degree to your name and increase your formal level of education. There is evidence that the accompanying exposure to new ideas and activities strengthens the very structure of your brain and the foundation of your cognitive abilities.

A 1993 study analyzed the tissue of 20 post-mortem individuals. The area of interest was Wernicke’s area, a part of the brain associated with understanding language, and the structures studied were basilar dendrites of supragranular pyramidal cells. By grouping the 20 individuals studied according to age, gender and educational level attained, researchers were able to assess how these characteristics correlated with dendrite complexity, length and, in turn, the subject’s cognitive abilities. The study’s findings revealed that education matters. Tissue samples taken from college-educated people had longer and more complex dendrites than the tissue taken from their less educated peers, a feature that is thought to be a critical underpinning of intelligence (see Dendrite Complexity and Intelligence).

Since then other studies have used MRI to look at gross structural readouts. A 2016 study looked at the association between education and cortical thickness. Analysis of 617 adults from a range of communities found that thickness increased with education, with differences persisting even at the older age of 76. Adjusting for their subject’s childhood IQ scores, however, dampened this relationship considerably. On the other hand other studies did not find a similarly a compelling relationship between higher education and cortical thickness.

Still the evidence falls largely in favor of evident structural changes.  Two other studies looking at grey matter volume found relationships with education. One study with 32 study participants reported less gray matter volume loss in people who had attained a higher level of education. They also found that the more educated participants had higher activation levels in areas of the brain associated with working memory. Another study of 331 participants reported differences in the volume of grey matter between study participants that could be accounted for by education and self-reported physical activity.

Still another study, this one from 2015, this one using positron emission topography (PET) scans to identify functional connectivity patterns in the brain found that older women with higher levels of education had brains that were both more efficient and more resilient. Moreover, areas of the brain associated with language, memory and learning had higher glucose metabolism rates in the more educated woman, indicating greater connectivity.

Furthermore, the effects of education may persist providing protection of your brain health as you age. For example a 2015 study of a group of older patients, some with Parkinson’s disease and correlated results of tests of cognitive abilities with education, professional solicitations, and engagement in leisure and physical activities. Of these four factors, education was the strongest indicator of comparatively high cognitive abilities in both the healthy participants and those with Parkinson’s. Even years after completing their formal education, people who had attended higher-level courses had better functioning brains.

It seems bizarre that an event so early on in life can impact the later stages of brain development; but it is supported by compelling theory. Plasticity never completely goes away, but it does decline with age. Your brain is better at building new connections when you’re young. That so many different measures find a link between education and cognitive ability indicates that this is a very real phenomenon.  Of course, college is only one step along the trajectory of brain development and many conflating factors may be responsible for this difference. People who attend college may also have a more enriched environment throughout their early lives, and also continue to challenge themselves as they age.

Though it may be the case that brain structures related to higher intelligence induce a desire to go to college, or that some third factor influences them both, evidence is mounting that education changes the fundamental structures of our brains. The brain structure correlates, and our understanding of brain plasticity implies that exposure to a wide variety of mentally stimulating activity at a young age is a strong predictor of brain health and increased cognitive abilities throughout one’s life.

College students are exposed to new ideas and mental stimulation that they may not have encountered on their own. They read a vast variety of materials and wrestle with complicated topics from an array of fields. In comparison, young people outside of the traditional educational system are more likely to specialize in the workplace and spend their free time on activities they already enjoy. This likely gives college students a leg up at a time that is still crucial for their cognitive development. In terms of your brain, the four years spent experiencing life as a coed are well worth it.


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