Every time I hear the word neurogensis the soundtrack for 2001 A Space Odyssey pops into my head. The difference is – the movie was science fiction and neurogenesis is grounded in science. Neurogenesis is the birth of brain cells. Up until twenty years ago this concept of growing new brain cells was considered science fiction. The consensus among neuroscientists was that our brain developed through childhood and the teens and then stopped. The brain we had at that point would decline as we aged. Our brains were considered fixed.
Aging is tough on our brains. Neurons (brain cells) are dying as we age and our brain shrinks. There is substantial cell loss in the hippocampus, the center for learning and memory, as well as the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive function such as planning and decision-making. These changes are noticeable by changes in memory capabilities and slower speed of processing. It was an accepted fact that this was what happened to the brain as we got older and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.
Researchers then discovered that we have neural stem cells throughout our brain and they constantly replenish and differentiate into brain neurons. This was a huge discovery and changed the way we thought about the brain forever. There has to be an initiator for this process of neurogenesis to happen. The process of neurogenesis is controlled by our DNA to produce that initiator – Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). It was discovered that there was a decrease in BDNF in Alzheimer’s patients and certain neurological conditions. What research has found is that the factors that influence our DNA to produce BDNF are under our control! The gene that turns on BDNF is activated by physical exercise. In essence, we have control to turn on our BDNF and start neurogenesis! Studies on aging mice revealed that physical activity, as a voluntary exercise, increased the number of newborn neurons in the hippocampus, the center for learning and memory.
The Journal of the American Medical Association issued a report – “Effect of Physical Activity in Cognitive Function in Older Adults at Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease” which stated that older individuals engaged in regular physical exercise for a 24-week period had a substantially significant improvement of 1800% on measures of memory, language, ability, attention, and other important cognitive functions when compared to an age-matched control group that did not participate in physical exercise.
Dr. David Perlmutter aptly states “Just by engaging in regular physical exercise, you open the door to the possibility of actively taking control of your mental destiny.” The ongoing process of neurogenesis is believed to underlie neuronal plasticity allowing for the brain to constantly adapt to the environment and influencing learning and memory throughout our lifetimes. This is an incredible discovery and provides so much power over our brain health and hope for a brain healthy future. Isn’t Science Wonderful?!
Perlmutter,David.(May 25, 2011). Neurogenesis -how to change your brain. The Huffington Post.