Brain white matter structure and COMT gene are linked to second-language learning in adults

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jun 28;113(26):7249-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1606602113. Epub 2016 Jun 13.


Adult human brains retain the capacity to undergo tissue reorganization during second-language learning. Brain-imaging studies show a relationship between neuroanatomical properties and learning for adults exposed to a second language. However, the role of genetic factors in this relationship has not been investigated. The goal of the current study was twofold: (i) to characterize the relationship between brain white matter fiber-tract properties and second-language immersion using diffusion tensor imaging, and (ii) to determine whether polymorphisms in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene affect the relationship. We recruited incoming Chinese students enrolled in the University of Washington and scanned their brains one time. We measured the diffusion properties of the white matter fiber tracts and correlated them with the number of days each student had been in the immersion program at the time of the brain scan. We found that higher numbers of days in the English immersion program correlated with higher fractional anisotropy and lower radial diffusivity in the right superior longitudinal fasciculus. We show that fractional anisotropy declined once the subjects finished the immersion program. The relationship between brain white matter fiber-tract properties and immersion varied in subjects with different COMT genotypes. Subjects with the Methionine (Met)/Valine (Val) and Val/Val genotypes showed higher fractional anisotropy and lower radial diffusivity during immersion, which reversed immediately after immersion ended, whereas those with the Met/Met genotype did not show these relationships. Statistical modeling revealed that subjects' grades in the language immersion program were best predicted by fractional anisotropy and COMT genotype.

Keywords: dopamine; genetic variation; short-term plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anisotropy
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase / genetics*
  • Female
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Learning*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • White Matter / anatomy & histology*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Young Adult


  • COMT protein, human
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase