Why Cabbies Can Get around Neuroscientists from Cmu Now Can Say Why Gray Matter Actually Grows during the Mental Exercise of Route Planning - the Physiology of Why Cabbies Have Bigger Hippocampi

By David Templeton, | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Why Cabbies Can Get around Neuroscientists from Cmu Now Can Say Why Gray Matter Actually Grows during the Mental Exercise of Route Planning - the Physiology of Why Cabbies Have Bigger Hippocampi


David Templeton,, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Andriy Bohdan has been a Pittsburgh-area cabbie for two years and works 70 hours a week. That's one way of saying he knows his way around Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and beyond.

The native of Ukraine who works for Cranberry Taxi says he uses navigational software on his smartphone mostly to gauge traffic congestion but still knows automatically how to get to most neighborhoods and communities in the region.

"I've gotten better, doing more driving," Mr. Bohdan said. "You start seeing things differently, and your driving behavior and how you make decisions changes."

Yes, global positioning systems make his job incredibly easier. "But I do wonder how old-school cabbies did this without the technology," he said.

Science would suggest that Mr. Bohdan, with navigational skills refined through taxi driving, has an enlarged section of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is involved in route planning and navigation. Ever since a 2000 study, neuroscientists have known that about London cabbies.

But neuroscientists from Carnegie Mellon University now can answer why gray matter in the hippocampus actually grows during the mental exercise of route planning - the physiology of why those cabbies have bigger hippocampi.

They also found that such brain changes don't take long to accomplish.

Published recently in the journal NeuroImage, a study by Timothy A. Keller and Marcel Adam Just showed that just 45 minutes of repeatedly driving a virtual route in a video game, when compared to others always traveling a different route, changed the tissues in the hippocampus. This learning in the hippocampus enables storage and future use of the knowledge in other cortices of the brain such as the parietal lobe that's known to be involved in route mapping.

What actually change in the hippocampus are the synapses - the junctions between brain cells (neurons) and their entourage. There may be an increase in the number of these junctions or an increase in the size of other cells that nourish the synapses.

Understanding the physiology of the brain helps explain measured changes in the hippocampus resulting from navigation, "and how they are related to communication across a network or areas involved in learning and representing cognitive maps of the world around us," stated Mr. Keller, a senior research scientist at the university's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging.

Mr. Just, director of the center, said their study reveals that "microscopic changes in the hippocampus are accompanied by rapid changes in the way the structure communicates with the rest of the brain."

"We now know, at least for this type of spatial learning, which area changes its structure and how it changes its communication with the rest of the brain," he said. "Here for the first time, and this is glorious, we show modifications - enhancements - of both brain tissue and brain communication during learning."

The study involved 28 young adults with little experience in playing action video games. For 45 minutes, some played a driving simulation game in which they maneuvered along the same route 20 times. …

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