Recharging your brain, one neuron at a time

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February 24, 2014

New brain regeneration methods offer hope for aging minds, from improving memory to battling depression

Jason Snyder is affiliated with the new Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a major new research and clinical facility opening this week.

What is neurogenesis?

UBC Prof. Jason Snyder

Neurogenesis is the birth of new neurons in the brain. For a long time, it was generally accepted that people were born with a set number of neurons. However, about 50 years ago, evidence started emerging that suggested new neurons are produced by the brain in adulthood. Conclusive evidence didn’t arrive until the early 1990s and roughly 10 years were spent trying to convince the scientific community that adult neurogenesis was possible.

Fortunately, technology has since caught up to science, showing that new neurons are created every day. We now know that approximately 40 per cent of your total neurons appear in adulthood, and we’ve spent the past decade figuring out how these new neurons function.

Can new neurons keep us mentally fit while we age?

The possibilities are endless! An area where new neurons are added in substantial amounts is the hippocampus, which is well known for its role in forming memories. New neurons may offer benefits for learning that older, pre-existing neurons cannot. The hippocampus is also affected in mood disorders, and there is increasing evidence that neurogenesis may be important for combating depression. We still don’t understand the potential for neurogenesis throughout the brain, especially in regions that deteriorate with age or disease. But our ultimate goal is to increase neurogenesis in these regions in order to restore brain function.

How do we boost this form of renewal in our brains?

The most reliable way to boost neurogenesis is to exercise. Physical exercise boosts the brain’s rate of neurogenesis, while mental exercise increases the rate at which those new brain cells survive and form connections. The neurons you produce during adulthood are especially good at learning and memory, but you have to use them or else you will lose them. If you aren’t challenging your brain, many of the new neurons it has created will die off within a few months.

Jason Snyder is an assistant professor in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology and leads the Neuroscience Research Lab.

The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is the largest and most comprehensive brain centre in Canada. Powered by a dream team of clinicians, care providers and researchers, the DMCBH is a partnership between the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and was named for its principal funder, Djavad Mowafaghian.

Find other stories about: brains, Dept. of Psychology, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, Jason Snyder, neuroscience

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