If the brain is a muscle, learning a new language is its barbell, according to a new study from Pennsylvania State University.

"Learning and practicing something, for instance a second language, strengthens the brain," says Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. "Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger."

Dr. Li and his colleagues worked with a group of 39 native English speakers over the course of six weeks during which half the participants learned Chinese vocabulary words.

In the interest of tracking neural changes, the research team performed two fMRI scans on each participant, one before the Chinese classes began and one after the course ended.

Before the classes started, the most successful learners among the group had exhibited a more connected brain network than those who were slower to catch on.

According to the researchers, integrated networks make the brain more adept at language learning.

After Chinese classes ended, the successful learners had undergone functional changes that made their brain networks even better integrated.

Dr. Li and his colleagues say that these anatomical changes can occur in the brain at any age as a result of learning a second language.

"A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought," says Li. "We can still see anatomical changes in the brain (in the elderly), which is very encouraging news for aging. And learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging."

The paper was published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.