By Julie M, Miwa Ph.D.
Many of us make New Year’s resolutions every year, only to break them. So why is it so hard to change? Neuroscientists have found a gene, lynx1, that could add important clues to our understanding of our learning potential.
Many of us, as human beings, seek to improve and grow. We are creatures of habit, and it can seem futile to adapt our behaviors as much as we are motivated, and no matter how much it would improve our lives to do so. It turns out that some of the neural mechanisms in our brains are partly responsible for this, creating neural “grooves” that are more resistant to change as we mature. When we are young, we are sponges for new information and we can acquire, such as language, readily. Our brains are plastic. During this time, the connections between our neurons are being molded robustly, some useful connections, called synapses, growing stronger while less relevant ones are pruned away. What is left when this period of robust plasticity ends is a brain that is shaped by, and useful for, living in its environment, but one that is not as flexible as it once was for learning new things. A second language can be learned, for instance, but we may have to study harder and likely will retain an accent.
Since our adult brains are less adaptable, it is easier to utilize the connections that are already set up, than to create new ones. This makes it easier to fall into previous patterns of behavior. What if we want to make improvements to our character, outgrow a bad habit, or if our environment has changed? Are we imprisoned by our synapses?
Researchers have found that plasticity could be influenced by lynx genes. The lynx1 gene turns up at the end of this robust period of change and acts as a molecular brake on plasticity. Animals with this gene removed show augmented learning and memory functions while the robust plasticity of youth can be seen even in adulthood. What could we gain if we could learn to turn on and off this gene at will; could this understanding be helpful for people with memory disorders? If we can learn the rules for inhibiting lynx1, perhaps we can ease the brakes on plasticity and allow for greater behavior change.
Until then, an appreciation of how our worldviews are influenced by early experiences, and how our specialized neural circuitry can inform our interpretation of the events, might give us some much needed insights about our different perspectives. Because our brains are shaped by our individualistic experiences, a result of both nature and nurture, we are all unique. Our ability to solve problems is strengthened when we can bring a multitude of different capacities to bear. Rather than allowing our differences to become a barrier to understanding, perhaps we can start to see our differences as a strength to call upon to help us solve the world’s ills.