Image: Swordfish (film)

Can Learning to Code Delay Alzheimer's?

Research suggests it might.

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Jun 8 2015, 9:00am

Image: Swordfish (film)

For Gregorio Rojas, who arrived in Lowell, Massachusetts from Colombia at four years old and later went on to become a software developer, learning to code was a lot like learning English.

"The experience of learning both overlap in my head," he said. "I knew what I wanted to say, but it did not always come out that way. The vocab was missing or just wrong. This is the same in code where you end up writing something different than what you intended, and therefore the computer doesn't do what you wanted."

That sentiment makes a lot of sense. According to new research, the ways in which our brains process spoken and computer languages are similar. Programmers may also get the mental benefits of being bilingual—such as a delayed onset of Alzheimer's disease, for example.

Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that affects 5.3 million Americans. It is the most common form of dementia and characterized by a loss in memory, language, problem solving and other cognitive abilities. The disease is eventually fatal, and while there is no single cause, risk factors include age, certain genetic mutations, low levels of formal education, and low levels of social and cognitive engagement.

"If the bilingual brain starts to degenerate, it has more reserve to suppress symptoms."

Several studies have shown that being bilingual or multilingual significantly delays the manifestation of Alzheimer's because bilingual brains have greater adaptability and functionality. So are programmers' brains similarly resistant to developing the disease?

It all comes down to cognitive reserve, or how "in shape" your brain is to deal with aging, says Evy Woumans, an author of one of the bilingualism studies. She found that out of 134 people studied, bilingual subjects manifested Alzheimer's 4.6 years later than monolinguals.

Bilingual brains get extra exercise, essentially, because they never turn off the other language, Woumans said.

"Bilinguals are not able to shut down one of their languages completely while conversing," she told Motherboard. "In other words, their two languages are constantly simultaneously activated, which can be seen as some type of mental workout,"

People who speak two languages therefore have more grey matter density and more white matter integrity (better connections) in their brains than monolinguals, which helps them delay the aging process, she speculated.

"If the bilingual brain starts to degenerate, it has more reserve to suppress symptoms. You can compare it to weightlifting. Ask a trained bodybuilder to pick up 100 pounds with one hand and he will manage, even when he's sick and has the flu. Ask a normally built, healthy person to do the same and he will have great difficulty."

Knowing multiple coding languages could have the same effect as knowing multiple spoken languages, she said—which means learning to code could also possibly delay Alzheimer's.

Other researchers also suspect learning to code could have beneficial effects for the aging brain.

Professor Janet Siegmund of the University of Passau and her colleagues ran fMRI brain scans on 17 volunteers while they were reading code snippets for a study in 2014.

"We found [the] first empirical evidence that both, natural language and programming language, require the same areas in the brain," she said. "Based on this, we can infer that understanding programming languages and natural languages appear to be similar."

Spoken and computer languages both require processing symbols and grammar, Siegmund said, so there are similarities to learning them. The difference is that we're hard-wired to learn spoken languages at birth, which isn't the case with computer languages. (Also, learning to write computer programs is completely different from speaking a language.)

Siegmund hopes to continue her research using other neuroimaging techniques such as EEG, fNIR and TMS, because there's much more to understand. For example: Is it comparable in the brain for someone be bilingual by speaking one language and programming in another? How early on does one have to learn computer languages for the effects to be similar? Do you have to learn another language growing up to delay the onset of Alzheimer's?

Woumans is also continuing her work, specifically to see how Alzheimer's progresses in monolinguals and bilinguals, and also to see if bilingualism can be used as therapy "to keep the brain young and healthy."

She's not ready to say computer languages have the same effect as spoken languages for bilinguals, though.

"We can deduce that inhibition is the key to brain training and delayed onset of Alzheimer's," she said. "So, hypothetically speaking, if you know several computer languages and you need to inhibit one to employ the other, it is possible that they have a similar effect."

Rojas, now 40, is firmly convinced of the similarities between spoken language and coding. He cofounded Sabio.la, a developer bootcamp aimed specifically at underrepresented minorities in Los Angeles, so he's spent a lot of time figuring out how to translate his thoughts into different languages—both for humans and computers.

"I learned computer languages like I learned Spanish or English. I practiced enough so that I could have a practical command of it, then I went to work to learn how to do it better."

As for whether this means he'll be immune or resistant to Alzheimer's, Rojas said he sure hopes so.

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