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Have you ever wondered how your brain creates new neurons? It's a process called neurogenesis, and it's more common than you might think. It was once believed that the mature brain was un-malleable in morphology and function. That neurons were unable to regenerate and that the adult human had a fixed amount of neurons and that cells can die but not be born. Not only is the brain plastic, it has the ability to generate new neurons in the adult brain, thanks to the innovative approach supported by Spalding et al., (2013). They used a technique called retrospective dating, which revealed about 700 new neurons are added per day in the hippocampus. Research has shown that neurogenesis can occur throughout the lifespan in certain areas of the brain. In this post, we'll delve into the fascinating world of neurogenesis and explore what we know about this important process.
What is neurogenesis?
Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are generated in the brain. These neurons, also known as nerve cells, are responsible for transmitting information throughout the body and play a crucial role in learning, memory, and other cognitive functions.
While neurogenesis has traditionally been thought to occur only during fetal development and infancy, research has shown that neurogenesis can occur throughout the lifespan in certain areas of the brain. Specifically, neurogenesis has been observed in the dentate gyrus, which compromise parts of the hippocampus. Thus is a region of the brain involved in learning and memory. Neurogenesis also occurs in the olfactory bulb, which is involved in the sense of smell.
How does neurogenesis occur?
The process of neurogenesis begins with the proliferation of neural stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to divide and differentiate into various types of neurons and glial cells. These stem cells undergo a process called asymmetric division, in which one daughter cell remains a stem cell (this process of self renewal is required to make sure the cells don't run out), while the other differentiates into a neuron or glial cell.
As the newly-formed neuron begins to differentiate, it extends axons and dendrites, which are long, branching processes that allow the neuron to communicate with other neurons. The axons transmit information to other neurons, while the dendrites receive information from other neurons.
Once the neuron has fully matured, it integrates into the existing neural network and begins to function as a normal neuron.
Factors that influence neurogenesis
There are several factors that can influence the rate of neurogenesis, including:
· Exercise: Studies have shown that regular physical activity can increase the production of new neurons in the hippocampus.
· Diet: A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to increased neurogenesis.
· Stress: Chronic stress has been shown to decrease the rate of neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
· Aging: The rate of neurogenesis tends to decline with age.
Chronic sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption will decrease the level of neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Limiting calorie intake of 30% or doing intermittent fasting such as eating every other day for adults increases neurogenesis. Curcumin enhances neurogenesis and cognition in animal studies.
The potential benefits of neurogenesis
While the primary function of neurogenesis is to replace damaged or dead neurons, there is evidence to suggest that increasing the rate of neurogenesis may have several potential benefits.
· Improved learning and memory: As mentioned earlier, the hippocampus is involved in learning and memory, and increasing neurogenesis in this region of the brain may improve these cognitive functions.
· Enhanced mood: Some studies have suggested that increasing neurogenesis in the hippocampus may have antidepressant effects and could potentially be used as a target of choice in treating for example depression.
· Reduced risk of neurological disorders: Increasing neurogenesis may help to reduce the risk of certain neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease.
Neurogenesis is a fascinating process that occurs throughout the lifespan in certain areas of the brain. By understanding more about neurogenesis and the factors that influence it, we may be able to harness the potential benefits of this process and improve cognitive function, mood, and potentially even reduce the risk of certain neurological disorders.
Prof. Sandrine Thuret is Head of the Neurogenesis and Mental Health Laboratory and Deputy Head of the Cell and Behaviour Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience within King’s College London.