When you are in the womb, your developing brain is a neuron factory: you grow billions of these long brain cells that form connections and pathways for information in your brain.
It used to be thought that you were born with pretty much all the neurons you were ever going to have, and that in adulthood you couldn’t grow more. But recently scientists have overturned that notion.
The first clues that an adult brain can grow new neurons came from studies of animals – it was observed that adult rats could sprout new neurons in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. Research on birds found that the numbers of neurons increased in male birds during mating season, just when they needed to learn new songs. And scientists also discovered ‘neurogenesis’, or the growth of new neurons, in the brains of monkeys.
Then in the 1990s, researchers found evidence that in humans the adult hippocampus – a key part of the brain involved in memory – was also capable of growing new neurons from immature nerve cells.
Scientists are still looking into this, trying to figure out how it happens and what benefits it could bring – maybe growing these neurons can help the brain keep healthy in adulthood. They are also trying to understand how we can encourage more brain cells to grow, to keep our brain healthy even into older age.
Prof Yaakov Stern tells us how a stimulating environment and exercise can make your brain both more durable and plastic. Could this also help us cope with or even prevent Alzheimer’s?
One way to keep your neuron factory running smoothly in adulthood could be to exercise. Studies on lab mice showed that running and being in an enriched environment seemed to encourage new neurons to grow. And so far in humans the evidence also points to exercise being linked with new growth of neurons in the adult brain, suggesting that when you go for a run you might also be growing your grey matter.
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