The first research on neurogenesis—the ability of the brain to make new neurons, or brain cells—began in the 1960s. Since then, researchers have uncovered some handy tricks that increase neurogenesis. Keep reading to learn how to build a better brain that can stay strong against neurodegenerative diseases and depression.
How Does Neurogenesis Work?
Neurons are cells in the brain that receive and transmit chemical and electrical signals to other neurons, as well as the muscles and tissues throughout your body.
The adult brain generates neurons in two areas: the subventricular zone (SVZ) that makes up the lining of the lateral ventricles and the subgranular zone that comprises the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and mood.
The first evidence of neurogenesis emerged from the work of Joseph Altman. Altman injected adult rats with a radioactive molecule that identified newly formed brain cells in the hippocampus. But what happens in the rat hippocampus may not be mimicked in the human brain.
In the 1980s, Fernando Nottebohm expanded on Altman’s findings by showing that the new brain cells could conduct electricity and were, more specifically, nerve cells.
More recent studies have shown that neural stem cells in mice brains undergo differentiation into nerve cells, that while neurogenesis slows with age it never completely stops, and that adult hippocampal neurogenesis is indeed happening in humans.
Strides have also been made in the science of neuroplasticity, also known as synaptic plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to build new neural networks and synapses, or connections.
But what does all this mean for cognitive function?
Neurogenesis can help improve memory, protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, and lower dependency on antidepressants. Together, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis can help rewire the brain after a brain injury or impairment, and can help strengthen and protect brain function in a healthy aging brain. You can boost brain function by stimulating neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus.
The Secret to a Healthy Brain
Neuroscientist Marion Diamond was the first researcher to show that practice and enrichment can change brain structure and increase hippocampal neurons and hippocampal volume, and she proved it with evidence from Albert Einstein’s brain.
According to Diamond, brain health comes down to five necessities:
- Being stimulated by new experiences and knowledge
- Being challenged by new activities and puzzles
- Being nurtured with regular exercise
- Being fed brain-boosting nutrients
- Being shown affection and love
Neuroscientists following in her footsteps have confirmed the positive effects of these five brain enhancements.
5 Tips to Increase Neurogenesis
Neuroscience continues to show that engaging in these five lifestyle habits can help increase neurogenesis and benefit neuronal activity.
#1 Do New Things
The brain loves to be taken on an adventure. To experience new people, places, and activities. Travel, explore a new neighborhood, socialize, volunteer and become involved in your community...never stop engaging with the world. Your brain craves these new experiences!
#2 Challenge Your Brain
Challenge can come in many forms: a Sudoku puzzle, playing a new instrument, mastering a foreign language, or learning a dance routine. The trick is to never stop challenging your brain to learn new things and evolve. Otherwise, it gets stagnant and set in its ways. While the brain makes 700 new neurons a day, it can make many more when it’s faced with a good challenge.
#3 Make Time for Physical Exercise
Physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, has been proven to increase neurogenesis and neurogenic plasticity. Exercise activates the brain's production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps control neurogenesis (1). The takeaway? Never stop moving!
#4 Eat Brain-Boosting Nutrients
Eat foods rich in antioxidants and flavonoids: fruits like berries, vegetables like kale, and spices like curcumin. Anti-inflammatory foods such as omega-3 fatty acids, as well as essential amino acids formulated to subdue inflammation in the brain also help to fortify cognition.
#5 Give and Receive Love
Humans need humans. With the pandemic still surging, people are isolated from friends and loved ones. Even during quarantine it’s important to reach out virtually for love and affection. Connection is key to brain health.
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