Taxi driver brains: A further look

Eleanor Maguire has extended the research for which she and her colleagues (David Gadian, Ingrid Johnsrude, Catriona Good, John Ashburner,Richard Frackowiak, and Christopher Frith of University College London) were awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize in psychology.

The original paper is: “Navigation-Related Structural Change In the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers“, It compared the brains of London taxi drivers—all of whom had undergone the years-long task of memorizing the street map of London—with the brains of other people.

Ed Yong, in his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, describes Maguire’s new paper:

n 2000, Maguire showed that one particular part of the brain – the  hippocampus – is much larger in London cab drivers than in other people….

An enlarged hippocampus is a rare feature. You don’t see it in doctors who gain vast amounts of knowledge over many years. You don’t see it in memory champions who have trained themselves to remember seemingly impossible lists. You don’t see it in London’s bus drivers who have similar driving skills but work along fixed routes. Among all of these groups, only the London cabbies, with their superb spatial memories, have swollen hippocampi….

“But of course,” [Maguire] says, “the real test is to take people before they start training and test them afterwards, to see if there are changes in the hippocampus in the same individual. That would give the best evidence.”

Maguire, and her colleague Katherine Woollett, have done exactly that. They scanned their brains of 79 wannabe drivers who had just started their training. Three to four years later, they did the same thing. By this point, 39 of the trainees – just under half – had earned their licence. The rest had flunked out. The Knowledge is not easily won….

Woollett and Maguire found that the hippocampi of the qualified cabbies had grown in size, especially the back part. They were now significantly larger than those of either the failed trainees or the men who didn’t take part….

This photo shows Eleanor Maguire (first from the left, in white) at the Ig Nobel ceremony as she was about to receive her prize from Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach (right, also in white):

BONUS: Wellcome Trust press release about the new work.