Taxi drivers’ secret: ‘I had all them brain cells in the back of my head’

Author: By Steve Connor, Science Editor

The brains of London taxi drivers grow because they are storing detailed knowledge of the city’s streets and landmarks, scientists have found.

A study of London cabbies used brain scanners to show that a part of the brain linked with navigational skills is bigger in taxi drivers than in other members of the public. The scientists also found that the size of the hippocampus – which lies deep within the temporal lobes of the brain just behind the eyes – gets bigger in proportion to a taxi driver’s length of service.

Eleanor Maguire, who conducted the study at the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology at University College London, said the findings strongly support the idea that the hippocampus grows in relation to the amount of map information a person acquires and uses regularly. Dr Maguire said that the tissue at the back of the hippocampus appears to be redistributed in taxi drivers, enabling them to store and use the vast quantity of map-reading information they build up during the course of their daily routine.

Previous research using a functional brain scanner identified the most active regions of taxi drivers’ brains when they were asked mentally to navigate from one place to another.

The latest research, which is based on an analysis of 16 drivers and 50 other members of the public, used a structural brain scanner to investigate the relative size of the hippocampus in different subjects. Dr Maguire said: “There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes. The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge navigating experience.”

London taxi drivers undergo extensive training before getting a licence and have to navigate between thousands of places in the city after taking a map test known as “the knowledge”.

The youngest taxi driver in the study was 32 and the oldest 64. Dr Maguire said that although the scanner could identify increases in volume of the hippocampus with length of service, the technique was unable precisely to quantify just how much bigger a taxi driver’s brain grows over the course of a working life.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have implications for debilitating brain disorders that may be helped by tissue regeneration, Dr Maguire said.

“It has long been thought that if there’s damage to the brain there’s only a limited amount of plasticity in an adult that can help them recover. Now, direct things in the environment, like navigation, appear to show changes to the brain, so we could in the future see some rehabilitation programmes that use that kind of knowledge.”

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