… and the more engaging and challenging the problem, the greater the number of neurons that stick around
In today’s encore excerpt – the brain can grow new neurons, but these disappear unless cognitively challenged:
“Fresh neurons arise in the brain every day. … Recent work, albeit mostly in rats, indicates that learning enhances the survival of new neurons in the adult brain, and the more engaging and challenging the problem, the greater the number of neurons that stick around. These neurons are then presumably available to aid in situations that tax the mind. It seems, then, that a mental workout can buff up the brain, much as physical exercise builds up the body. …
“In the 1990s scientists rocked the field of neurobiology with the startling news that the mature mammalian brain is capable of sprouting new neurons. Biologists had long believed that this talent for neurogenesis was reserved for young, developing minds and was lost with age. But in the early part of the decade Elizabeth Gould, then at the Rockefeller University, demonstrated that new cells arise in the adult brain – particularly in a region called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. …
“Studies indicate that in rats, between 5,000 and 10,000 new neurons arise in the hippocampus every day. (Although the human hippocampus also welcomes new neurons, we do not know how many.) The cells are not generated like clockwork, however. Instead their production can be influenced by a number of different environmental factors. For example, alcohol consumption has been shown to retard the generation of new brain cells. And their birth rate can be enhanced by exercise. Rats and mice that log time on a running wheel can kick out twice as many new cells as mice that lead a more sedentary life. …
“Exercise and other actions may help produce extra brain cells. But those new recruits do not necessarily stick around. Many if not most of them disappear within just a few weeks of arising. Of course, most cells in the body do not survive indefinitely. So the fact that these cells die is, in itself, not shocking. But their quick demise is a bit of a puzzler. Why would the brain go through the trouble of producing new cells only to have them disappear rapidly?
“From our work in rats, the answer seems to be: they are made ‘just in case.’ If the animals are cognitively challenged, the cells will linger. If not, they will fade away.”
Tracey J. Shors, “Saving New Brain Cells,” Scientific American, March 2009, pp. 47-48.