Posted on Jan 16, 2017, 6 a.m.
Bilinguals may be better equipped at warding off cognitive aging or dementia.
Monolingualism is the ability to use a single language. Bilingualism is the ability to use two languages in an effective manner. Multilingualism is the ability to use multiple languages. Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia in 2013 stated that over half of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual, that 56% of Europeans are bilingual as are 35% in Canada, 38% in Great Britain, and 17% in the United States
A team headed by Ana Inés Ansaldo, PhD, a professor at Université de Montréal and a researcher at the Centre de recherche de l'Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, compared functional brain connections that exist between seniors who are monolingual and ones who are bilingual.
The research showed that bilingual people are very adept at saving brain power depending on the task that has to be done. Bilingualism over years changes how the brain carries out tasks requiring concentration on one piece of information without being distracted by other information. That makes the brain more economical and efficient with its resources and recruiting fewer and only specialized regions.
The team asked one group of monolingual seniors and one of bilinguals to perform a task involving a focus on visual information (an object's color) as they ignored spatial information (the position of the object). Comparing the networks between brain areas as the tasks were done, it was found that monolinguals needed to recruit a larger circuit with multiple connections while bilinguals recruited a smaller circuit more appropriate for the information required.
The researchers observed that the monolingual brain also needs to use multiple brain regions in order to do the task. It allocates several regions linked to motor and visual function and interference control located in the frontal lobes.
Bilinguals, on the other hand, had become experts at selecting relevant information and ignoring information that can be distracting from a task due to years of managing interference between two languages.
Bilinguals showed a higher connectivity between the visual processing areas which are located at the back of the brain, the area specialized in the detection of visual characteristics of objects.
Bilinguals have two cognitive benefits and a double advantage as they age. One, they have more specialized and centralized functional connections that save resources compared to the more diverse and multiple brain areas used by monolinguals to accomplish the same task. Two, bilinguals arrive at the same result by not using the frontal regions of the brain which are vulnerable to aging. This might explain why bilinguals' brains are better able to stave off the signs of dementia or cognitive aging.
Dr. Ansaldo concluded that they made the observation that bilingualism has an impact on the function of the brain and a very positive impact on cognitive aging. They now need to study how that function translates to daily life such as concentrating on one source of information rather than another, something we have to do every day. In addition, all the benefits of bilingualism have yet to be discovered.
Pierre Berroir et al, Interference control at the response level: Functional networks reveal higher efficiency in the bilingual brain, Journal of Neurolinguistics (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2016.09.007