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Success in adult second language learning linked to genes and brain activity
How well adults learn a second language is linked to their genes and brain activity, according to a new study. - photo by Megan McNulty
How well adults learn a second language is linked to their genes and brain activity, according to a new study by the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

The researchers analyzed the levels of the COMT gene, one of several enzymes that controls certain hormones, the Genetics Home Reference reported. The researchers also analyzed activity of the brain's communication network or "white matter" fiber tract, which is associated with language processing, according to Quartz.

Seventy-nine college freshman, who were recruited by researchers, came to the U.S. from China to study at the University of Washington. Forty-four of the students were enrolled in a three-week English language course and the rest of the students were not enrolled and used as a control group.

Researchers performed MRIs on the participants, measuring the diffusion of white matter fiber tracts to correlate with the number of days the students had been in the English language program.

Researchers found that the higher number of days a student had been in the English language program, the larger amounts of changes of structure in their white matter.

To factor in genetics, the researchers took DNA samples from the students. Our study shows for the first time that variations of the COMT gene are related to changes in the brains white matter that are the result of learning, Ping Mamiya, a lead author of the study, told the University of Washington.

The study found 46 percent of the time results to learning a new language, positive or negative, can be linked to the student's COMT gene and changes in their white matter structure.

While our student participants were in the immersion program, their brains were undergoing rapid modifications in response to the instructions. However, the unique variants each individual carries in the DNA sequence influence how his or her brain responds to the instruction in a personal way, Mamiya explained to Quartz.

Patricia Kuhl, a co-author of the study, told the University of Washington the study "could also lead to interventions that improve learning."