As London taxi drivers in training are learning how to navigate the city’s thousands of streets, the experience actually changes the structure of their brains, according to a report published online in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.
The findings add to evidence that learning changes the adult brain and should come as encouraging news for life-long learning, says Eleanor Maguire of University College London.
To become a licensed London taxi driver, trainees must learn 25,000 streets and their complicated layout, as well as 20,000 landmarks. The learning process generally takes three to four years, culminating in a series of exams that only about half of trainees ultimately pass.
Maguire’s earlier studies of London taxi drivers showed that they have more gray matter in the back part of a brain structure called the hippocampus compared to non-taxi drivers, and less in the front. The hippocampus plays important roles in memory and spatial navigation.
In the new study, Maguire and colleague Katherine Woollett followed a group of trainee taxi drivers and non-taxi driver controls, capturing images of their brain structure over time and testing their memory. At the start, study participants showed no differences in either brain structure or memory. Three to four years later, the researchers found an increase in gray matter in the back part of the hippocampus of those trainees who qualified as taxi drivers. Changes were not observed in those trainees who failed to qualify, or in the non-taxi driver controls.