Few law students look back fondly on taking the Law School Admission Test, but those who spend a lot of time studying for it may see benefits beyond higher scores.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley Department of Psychology and U.C.’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute have found that intensive LSAT study alters the brain, reinforcing circuits and helping bridge the gap between its right and left hemispheres.

“The fact that performance on the LSAT can be improved with practice is not new,” said graduate student Allyson Mackey, the lead researcher. “What we were interested in is whether and how the brain changes as a result of LSAT preparation — which we think is, fundamentally, reasoning training. We wanted to show that the ability to reason is malleable in adults.”

The researchers conducted magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of 24 college students and recent graduates, both before and after they spent 100 hours studying for the LSAT over three months. They also scanned the brains of 23 young adults who did not study for the LSAT.

The scans revealed increased connectivity between the frontal lobes of the brain among the first group, and also between the frontal and adjoining parietal lobes — parts of the brain associated with reasoning and thinking.

In essence, the LSAT takers showed stronger connections between the part of the brain tasked with deductive reasoning and the part that handles spatial cognition — the ability to tackle everyday tasks.

“Our data is consistent with the idea that, while reasoning is left hemisphere-dominant, with training you learn to compensate; if you are not very good at reasoning, you start bringing in the right side,” Mackey said.

Training in reasoning skills may even increase a person’s IQ score, the researchers theorized.

“A lot of people still believe that you are either smart or you are not. And, sure, you can practice for a test, but you are not fundamentally changing your brain,” said UC Berkeley associate professor Silvia Bunge, with Kirstie Whitaker a co-author of the report, “Experience-dependant plasticity in white matter microstructure: Reasoning training alters structural connectivity.”

“Our research provides a more positive message,” she said. “How you perform on one of these tests is not necessarily predictive of your future success; it merely reflects your prior history of cognitive engagement and potentially how prepared you are at this time to enter a graduate program or a law school, as opposed to how prepared you could ever be.”

The study has been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.