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Neurogenesis and How Learning Saves Your Neurons

Jon Barron’s blog high­light­ed this recent press release from The Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science.

For decades, it was believed that the adult brain did not pro­duce new neu­rons after birth. But that notion has been dis­pelled by research in the last ten years. It became clear by the mid- to late-1990’s that the brain does, in fact, pro­duce new neu­rons through­out the lifes­pan.

This phe­nom­e­non, known as neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, occurs in most species, includ­ing humans, but the degree to which it occurs and the extent to which it occurs is still a mat­ter of some con­tro­ver­sy, says Tracey Shors, PhD, at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty.

How­ev­er, there is no ques­tion that neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis occurs in the hip­pocam­pus, a brain region involved in aspects of learn­ing and mem­o­ry. Thou­sands of new cells are pro­duced there each day, although many die with weeks of their birth.” Shors’ recent stud­ies have shown a cor­re­la­tion in ani­mal mod­els between learn­ing and cell sur­vival in the hip­pocam­pus.

Hip­pocam­pal-Depen­dent Learn­ing

The hip­pocam­pus plays a crit­i­cal roles in cer­tain types of mem­o­ry: The Limbic System con­sol­i­da­tion of new mem­o­ries, spa­tial mem­o­ry, and nav­i­ga­tion. Fur­ther­more, the hip­pocam­pus appears to influ­ence not only atten­tion and learn­ing, but also dis­crim­i­na­tion in deter­min­ing when it is appro­pri­ate to learn one thing or anoth­er and, con­se­quent­ly, inhibit­ing extra­ne­ous asso­ci­a­tions while allow­ing mean­ing­ful asso­ci­a­tions to form.

The Learn­ing Effect

It is clear that learn­ing can enhance the pres­ence of new neu­rons in the adult brain,” says Shors, imply­ing a “use it or lose it” phe­nom­e­non. “I want to stress that the cells that are res­cued from death by learn­ing were born before the learn­ing expe­ri­ence. It is not the case, at least as far as we can tell, that learn­ing pro­duces more cells,” she says. Rather, their data indi­cate that the cells that were already there at the time of the train­ing expe­ri­ence are affect­ed by learn­ing and there­by res­cued from death.

“I am often asked whether learn­ing and oth­er cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties will help pre­vent a decrease in neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis or even the onset of dis­eases such as Alzheimer’s,” she says. “It seems pru­dent to assume so until we know dif­fer­ent.”

Fred Gage, PhD at the Salk Insti­tute shows us that using your brain is the best way to opti­mize your brain func­tion:
“In the nat­ur­al course of aging there is cog­ni­tive decline. We know we lose the abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate new neu­rons with age. We are cur­rent­ly try­ing to fig­ure out how gen­er­ate as many neu­rons as pos­si­ble to poten­tial­ly enhance learn­ing or increase the amount of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis in adults.”

What Can You Do to Help Save Your Neu­rons?

  1. Devel­op a reg­u­lar men­tal work­out plan to match your phys­i­cal work­out.
  2. Eat well.
  3. Get plen­ty of phys­i­cal exer­cise.
  4. Reduce your stress.
  5. Get enough sleep.

Good luck!

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10 Responses

  1. Pat Prioleau says:

    Well done blog. We will work on using all the method­ol­o­gy!

  2. Caroline says:

    Glad you guys enjoyed the post- let us know how your work goes!!

  3. Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis is a fas­ci­nat­ing area of neu­ro­science. Anoth­er fac­tor that war­rants men­tion as a stim­u­la­tor of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis is exer­cise. Sev­er­al stud­ies have shown that reg­u­lar exer­cise increas­es the rate of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis in the hip­pocam­pus. In fact, exer­cise appears to do this by acti­vat­ing growth fac­tor sys­tems sim­il­iar to those acti­vat­ed by anti­de­pres­sant med­ica­tions, which have also been shown to increase hip­pocam­pal neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Cou­pling reg­u­lar phys­i­cal exer­cise with the mind chal­leng­ing exer­cis­es that you sug­gest are like­ly to mut­li­ply the pos­i­tive effects.

  4. Caroline says:

    Agreed! Phys­i­cal exer­cise is indeed impor­tant for increas­ing blood flow to the brain, increas­ing nerve growth fac­tor (NGF), and reduc­ing cor­ti­sol pro­duced by stress. All four of the pil­lars list­ed below play a role in keep­ing your cog­ni­tive skills func­tion­ing:

    1) Phys­i­cal Exer­cise
    2) Brain Exer­cise
    3) Nutri­tion
    4) Stress Reduc­tion

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