How bilingualism protects the brain from aging: Insights from bimodal bilinguals

L Li, J Abutalebi, K Emmorey, G Gong, X Yan, X Feng, L Zou, G Ding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Bilingual experience can delay cognitive decline during aging. A general hypothesis is that the executive control system of bilinguals faces an increased load due to controlling two languages, and this increased load results in a more "tuned brain" that eventually creates a neural reserve. Here we explored whether such a neuroprotective effect is independent of language modality, i.e., not limited to bilinguals who speak two languages but also occurs for bilinguals who use a spoken and a signed language. We addressed this issue by comparing bimodal bilinguals to monolinguals in order to detect age-induced structural brain changes and to determine whether we can detect the same beneficial effects on brain structure, in terms of preservation of gray matter volume (GMV), for bimodal bilinguals as has been reported for unimodal bilinguals. Our GMV analyses revealed a significant interaction effect of age × group in the bilateral anterior temporal lobes, left hippocampus/amygdala, and left insula where bimodal bilinguals showed slight GMV increases while monolinguals showed significant age-induced GMV decreases. We further found through cortical surface-based measurements that this effect was present for surface area and not for cortical thickness. Moreover, to further explore the hypothesis that overall bilingualism provides neuroprotection, we carried out a direct comparison of GMV, extracted from the brain regions reported above, between bimodal bilinguals, unimodal bilinguals, and monolinguals. Bilinguals, regardless of language modality, exhibited higher GMV compared to monolinguals. This finding highlights the general beneficial effects provided by experience handling two language systems, whether signed or spoken. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4109-4124
Number of pages16
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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    Li, L., Abutalebi, J., Emmorey, K., Gong, G., Yan, X., Feng, X., Zou, L., & Ding, G. (2017). How bilingualism protects the brain from aging: Insights from bimodal bilinguals. Human Brain Mapping, 38(8), 4109-4124.