Topic 4  

Brain plasticity and lifespan ontogeny

Mental processes and brain mechanisms are dynamic in nature and change as an organism ages. A defining feature of living organisms is their plasticity in adapting both to endogenous changes that result from processes of disease and injury or maturation and senescence on the one hand, and from exogenous changes driven by environmental and experiential factors on the other hand. Brain plasticity is a prerequisite for both short-term adaptation and long-term behavioral change.

The degree and manifestations of brain plasticity may be co-determined by (i) the extent of this supply–demand mismatch and (ii) the level of the individual’s intrinsic reserve potential. The latter varies across brain systems, persons, and age. For instance, some subcorti-cal structures, such as the hippocampus, may retain their plasticity to a greater extent in adulthood and old age than other brain regions. Individual differences in genetic predispositions or age have also been found to affect working memory plasticity. However, the time course and the dynamics of the cascade of plastic responses to supply–demand mismatches are only poorly understood. Within the context of the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, research groups in brain plasticity and lifespan ontogeny seek to attract doctoral candidates and postdoctoral researchers who pursue research that aims at delineating the dynamics of the different levels of brain and behavioral plasticity through repeated assessments of brain and behavior over time (micro-longitudinal approach), and who examine individual and age-related differences in intrinsic plastic potential.

Ongoing research activities in several of our research groups are of direct relevance for investigations of lifespan differences in human brain plasticity in various domains of cognition and behavior. The group of Ulman Lindenberger focuses on age-related and individual differences in brain structural and functional plasticity resulting from micro-longitudinal cognitive interventions (topic 2: decision-making), cognitive plasticity, and brain responsivity. Neural plasticity associated with language acquisition from the neonatal to adult age is the focus of Angela Friederici’s group (topic 3: language). Tania Singer’s group investigates early development and neural underpinnings of social behavior and emotions, such as empathy, and explores the developmental potential of prosocial behavior learning and associated brain plasticity (topic 6: human sociality and the brain). The group of Arno Villringer studies the brain plasticity that accompanies the (preclinical) development of vascular risk factors such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes and also plasticity after stroke (topic 5: brain disorders and mental dysfunction). Agnes Flöel’s team investigates the effects of lifestyle factors such as sports or low-calorie diets on cognition in elderly subjects and neurorehabilitation following degenerative diseases or injuries (topic 5).

Contact details of the Mind & Brain faculty

Internal links to Faculty and Associated resarchers

Special Newsletter issue on plasticity and lifespan research

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This page last updated on: 09 July 2015

How can we personalize our mind and brain through lifelong learning?
A defining feature of all living organisms is their plasticity to adapt through experiences and learning. An individual’s mind and brain can flexibly undergo modifications in structure and functional mechanisms, such that they reflect the cumulated experiences and learning the individual has been acquiring since early in life. Such transformation processes continue through most of the lifespan, although plasticity may be more limited in old age. Personal experiences acquired each day continue to leave “marks” on the mind and brain.