Behavioral correlates of changes in hippocampal gray matter structure during acquisition of foreign vocabulary

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Experience can affect human gray matter volume. The behavioral correlates of individual differences in such brain changes are not well understood. In a group of Swedish individuals studying Italian as a foreign language, we investigated associations among time spent studying, acquired vocabulary, baseline performance on memory tasks, and gray matter changes. As a way of studying episodic memory training, the language learning focused on acquiring foreign vocabulary and lasted for 10 weeks. T1-weighted structural magnetic resonance imaging and cognitive testing were performed before and after the studies. Learning behavior was monitored via participants' use of a smartphone application dedicated to the study of vocabulary. A whole-brain analysis showed larger changes in gray matter structure of the right hippocampus in the experimental group (N = 33) compared to an active control group (N = 23). A first path analyses revealed that time spent studying rather than acquired knowledge significantly predicted change in gray matter structure. However, this association was not significant when adding performance on baseline memory measures into the model, instead only the participants' performance on a short-term memory task with highly similar distractors predicted the change. This measure may tap similar individual difference factors as those involved in gray matter plasticity of the hippocampus.

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