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Although adult brains are malleable and even undergo limited neuorgenesis, the extent of the neuroplasticiy is much lower than in children. This is most obvious in language acquisition, and recovery from brain trauma.

Are there formal models (computational or mathematical) that explain why our brains so drastically reduce in plasticity with age?

If a highly malleable brain is supposed to help us adapt and deal with a constantly changing environment, then naively one would expect it to be advantageous to maintain a malleable brain for your whole life.


Background from critical-period in language acquisition

This is an example of formal models that I am already familiar with that answer a related question (critical-period in language acquisition). I am interested in answers in this spirit, but that can address not just language-acquisition but the general decrease in neuroplasticity.

In the case of the critical period for language acquisition there are evolutionary models by Hurford (1991) and Komarova & Nowak (2001). However, neither model generalizes easily to the case of neuralplasticity.

Hurford's model uses neutral drift to explain the upper bound on the critical period of language acquisition because of the need for second language acquisition in life is largely unnecessary. However, the need to adapt to your environment is necessary throughout life, so plasticity should not be under neutral drift.

In the case of Komarova & Nowak, the upper bound is due to a trade-off between the cost of learning (driving critical period down) and the importance of learning a language accurately (driving critical period up). This balances out and allows for an ESS due to dimishing returns: once you've learned a language pretty-well it becomes more costly to invest in learning further than the returns from better learning. However, adapting to a constantly changing environment is not a single static task, and thus it is not clear why your returns would diminish. Further, it is not clear how keeping high plasticity is more costly than maintaining lower plasticity.

Notes

  • This is a question of why, not how. Although it is very interesting to know how the plasticity of adult brains decreases, in this question I am interested in why this is the case over the hypothetical "keep as malleable as a baby" alternative.

  • Both Hurford (1991) and Komarova & Nowak (2001) provide formal evolutionary models that I do not describe in detail. I am interested in formal models like this, although they need not be evolutionary. An answer on the level of rhetoric (especially if it is evolutionary rhetoric) is not nearly as interesting to me as a formal model.

  • Hurford (1991) and Komarova & Nowak (2001) are meant as examples of work that answer the potentially easier question of critical period of language-acquisition. I am interested in the more general question of decrease in neuroplasticity.

References

Hurford, J. R. (1991). The evolution of critical period for language acquisition. Cognition, 40, 159-201. FREE PDF

Komarova, N. L. & Nowak, M. A. (2001). Natural selection of the critical period for language acquisition. Proc. R. Soc. London. B, 268(1472), 1189-1196. FREE PDF

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I suspect a great deal of the practical "why" is that further development is much less needed as an adult. Increased neuroplasticity helps in the rare event of brain trauma but it's probably not worth the added cost of neuroplasticity. Remember there;s more to neuroplasticity than learning language. –  Ben Brocka Feb 3 '12 at 14:46
    
@BenBrocka Yes, there is more to neuroplasticity than learning languages. If there wasn't then the two examples from language-learning I gave would answer my question. Precisely since neuroplasticity is a part of all learning is why the statement "further development is much less needed as an adult" does not seem obviously true. Learning is still important to an adult, why would it be so much less important that we'd sacrifice most of our plasticity? –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 3 '12 at 15:13
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@ArtemKaznatcheev I've been wondering about this for a while now and although I have no background in this at all, one thing that struck me as important is the relationship between learning and neurogenesis. If neurogenesis can be increased with learning, isn't it possible that as children, as everything is new to us, learning becomes a constant process and perhaps causes exponential neurogenesis? Although learning a second language is difficult, it's nowhere near as difficult as learning our first language, which I assume would cause a significant difference in levels of neurogenesis. –  John H Feb 6 '12 at 13:56
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3 Answers 3

Another reason for reduced plasticity in adults is that learning something different in the presence of an existing knowledge structure is more difficult than learning from a "blank slate". In a sense, you get interference from the known language (for example). One person who has developed this argument computationally is Jay McClelland in the context of native Japanese speakers learning the English /r/-/l/ distinction (e.g., McCandliss et al., 2002), though I think the principle may apply more generally.

The idea is that "reduced plasticity" is just a consequence of interference from the established knowledge rather than a fundamental change in plasticity. Part of the argument is that you only see reduced plasticity when there is a conflict between the (for example) first language and second language; aspects of the second language that match the first language are learned very quickly.

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this is interesting. However, if learning something becomes MORE difficult given already having knowledge, why would you REDUCE plasticity? Wouldn't that make it twice as difficult. However, I think this approach is promising. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 6 '12 at 21:32
    
Further, even the comment "learning something different in the presence of an existing knowledge structure is more difficult than learning from a "blank slate" is not obviously correct. Since you have to be difficult with what you mean by 'different'.. is learning a second language different? What about the content of this question? –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 6 '12 at 22:00
    
The idea is that "reduced plasticity" is just a consequence of interference from the established knowledge rather than a fundamental change in plasticity. Part of the argument (and I think this speaks to @ArtemKaznatcheev's second point) is that you only see reduced plasticity when there is a conflict between the (for example) first language and second language; aspects of the second language that match the first language are learned very quickly. –  Dan M. Feb 8 '12 at 14:51
    
@DanM. thanks for the explanation. It would be great if you could edit it into your answer to make it more clear. Also, your example of "aspects of the second language that match the first language are learned very quickly" would be very interesting for this ling.SE question –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 8 '12 at 14:56
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What you mean is that you want teenage existentialist angst to last for life? The neuroplasticity of younger children comes at a cost, which is not really knowing ones place in the world, because the world model you are building is constantly changing. Getting a world model broadly settled then enables you to move on in life and do more.

If we retained the same level of neuroplasticity for life, we would never actually do much, because we would never have a clear model of life to build on. The result of the moulding and structuring of a young persons brain is to produce something adapted for the rest of their life. The flexibility is important because their precise situation may require different adaptions to other people.

The real issue is that, even 100 years ago, once a person was adapted for life, their world would not change substantially in their lifetime. Today that is not the case ( Alvin Tofler, Future Shock, is a classic explaining this ). But keeping the plasticity for longer would, if anything, probably make the situation worse, not better, as the influential 20-somethings built a world around their own ever changing perspective.

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this is a nice idea. But I specifically request formal models. At the very least, could you source some of your claims? –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 6 '12 at 21:28
    
@Artem - yes I accept that, I was really trying to challenge your assertion that neuroplasticity would be good for life. I will try to fid some background for these assertions. –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 7 '12 at 10:12
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I don't have a specific reference for this, but from what I remember reading several years ago, most of the early plasticity in children's brains is more the result of pruning the abundance of neural connections present at birth than of creating new connections. As the number of existing connections decreases, the plasticity would necessarily decrease as well.

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if you don't remember a reference, then you should leave this as a comment. There is definitely a lot of pruning going on in a child's brain, but there is also a lot of neurogenesis (since a human child's brain grows after they are born). Hence, your comment is not that clear cut. However, even if you extended your answer with references, you would still be answering the 'how' and not so much the 'why'. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 6 '12 at 21:30
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