The human brain changes significantly after age 18. That's the finding of a Dartmouth University study that followed a group of students over their 4-year college career.
Assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, Abigail Baird, is co-author of the study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping. She says brain scans of participants showed striking physical differences compared with a control group of older students.
"There were two major parts of the brain that changed. They both play a really important role in integrating thinking and feeling," she says. "These are the cornerstones of social interaction in the first years of college when you are getting to know yourself and getting to know the other people around you really well.
Baird says while she did not expect the magnitude of change, it did not seem unreasonable considering the abrupt change in lifestyle experienced by freshman students living away from home for the first time. "It is really important to keep in mind that puberty is the biology of change and adolescence is the socio-cultural reflection of that, and in the United States we take a very long time with our adolescence," she says. "I think that the extent to which brain development is influenced by environment, we would see a very different pattern in adolescence, certainly in European adults and probably strikingly different in other cultures as well."
As she continues to chart the students' brains, Baird expects more changes over the four years, although not as dramatic as the first-year results. "That would make the most sense to me to see other regions (of the brain) maturing a bit but becoming more conversant with one another."
Baird says the brain has a way of adapting to new challenges and accommodating to changes in day-to-day life and the environment.