Yes, It’s True! Learning Makes Your Brain Hurt

I read this research on the Internet, so it has to be true.  Learning hurts your brain. I first began to suspect this was true in 4th Grade Spanish class with Mrs. Gonzalez, where I was called “Ricardo” for reasons that remained a mystery to me all year long.  (Hey — I’m just visiting your country for an hour a day.  I’m not planning on renouncing my citizenship and living here as an ex-pat like Hemingway, lady.) But I digress.

The researchers exposed J20 and wildtype mice to new cages to increase neuron activity. Surprisingly, after 2 hours in the novel environments, the number of gH2A.X -positive neurons spiked in the brains of both healthy and diseased animals, primarily in areas critical for memory formation and learning—suggesting that the brain activity itself was triggering DNA damage.

Interestingly, the damage was resolved in wildtype mice within 24 hours back in their home cages, but the damage persisted in J20 mice. Furthermore, the damage was higher in J20 mice, which had up to three times as many gH2A.X-positive neurons—and the differences could be detected as early as 1 month, before the J20 mice began exhibiting cognitive symptoms. The results suggest that perhaps the high levels of amyloid in the brains of these mice was preventing DNA repair. SOURCE

So — Should You Be Worried?

A slightly “less scientific” version of the findings published on Ars Technica suggests, reassuringly, that this “shouldn’t keep you up at night.”  And that it may even provide some useful insights into the cure of Alzheimer’s. But if you’ve already substantially damaged your neurons by moving to a new cage, you may not even be aware of what you’ve lost.  Check around your desk for degrees that you may have earned, patents in your name, and photos of you with famous people.  You should also ask close family members if you’re a big deal in any way at least once per day.

As educators, I think most of us are already aware of this situation.  I can say that any time I’ve tried to instill learning in any meaningful amount, it makes my brain hurt in a direct relationship to how hard I’m teaching.  That’s why, as I get older, I teach less and less and listen more and more.


(First published on