Neurogenesis – “The birth of new neurons in the brain; also referred to as the process in which neurons are created.”The growth of new brain cells occurs in the region of the brain called the “hippocampus.” The ‘hippocampus’ is an area involved with memory, learning, and other cognitive functions. In order to live and become part of our brain, new neurons formed in the hippocampus-region need support from surrounding nutrients from blood and glial cells.
Most importantly, they need support from other surrounding neurons – otherwise these new brain cells will die. Though thousands of new brain cells are formed and produced via the hippocampus each and every day, many die quickly after birth. When we can keep them alive for this crucial period after birth, we are able to effectively boost the power of the human brain by adding new brain cells to the bank of existing cells.
Though neurogenesis is most active during prenatal development, there is growing evidence that certain activities also induce the growth of new brain cells [neurons] in the brain. Provided below are 7 researched and proven ways to grow new brain cells and provide a safe haven for effective neurogenesis.
1. An Exercise Regimen
Everybody knows that exercise is good for your overall health and heart, but in recent findings, powerful evidence has proven that exercise is great for your brain. Scientific experiments have discovered that mice consistently using running wheels had around 2x the amount of hippocampal neurons (brain cells) as the mice that didn’t exercise.
Another study at Colombia University found that humans who had a exercise training program were able to grow and maintain new brain cells and nerve cells in the hippocampus region of the brain. The specific area called the “dentate gyrus” is responsible for helping produce neurogeneis. Even more studies have discovered that those who exercised had 2 – 3x increases in the birth-rate of new neurons!
2. Eating Blueberries
Eating blueberries can trigger the growth of new brain cells? That’s right! 19-month-old rats that were put on a blueberry enriched diet [equal to about 1 cup per day for humans] were more skilled at navigating through mazes than rats who weren’t fed blueberries. Scientists know for a fact that blueberries promote the growth of new neurons. In order to track the growth of neurons, researchers injected dye into rats.
They saw that in the hippocampus region, new brain cells were generated. Scientists figure that “anthocyanin dye” – the dark bluish-dye found in blueberries caused the neurogenesis. The anthocyanin-dye contains chemicals that can cross the blood-brain barrier and produce the growth of neurons. There is growing evidence that the “anthocyanin dye” has the same effect on the brains of humans!
Related: For more information on brain foods, read the article Brain Foods: 50 Good Brain Foods.
3. Taking Time for Meditation
Meditation has always thought to have been beneficial for the brain. Recent compelling evidence from scientific researchers at Yale, Harvard, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that meditation can allow us to “grow bigger brains.” Though this isn’t the same thing as neurogenesis, meditation could very well be an activity that boosts the birth rate of neurons.
Researchers also discovered that meditators literally had an altered-physical brain structure compared to non-meditators. Brain scanning technology [i.e. MRIs] showed that meditation boosted thickness of brain structure dealing with attention, sensory input, and memory functions. The thickening was found to be more noticeable in adults than younger individuals. It’s interesting because the same sections of our cortex that meditation thickens, tend to get thinner as we age.
Meditation is known to boost brain activity, coherency of brain waves, strengthen neural connections, and thicken gray matter. Though scientists haven’t confirmed the effects of meditation and its ability to aid neurogenesis [due to complexity issues], there is a likely possibility that it helps.
4. Antidepressant Drugs
Scientific research by the National Institute of Mental Health has proven that antidepressants work by allowing our brains to grow new brain cells (neurons). In a 2003 study, scientists discovered that when they blocked the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus brain region, behavioral effects of the antidepressant Prozac [Fluoxetine] were diminished.
Research has already understood that depression, stress, and anxiety disorders can cause death of neurons in the brain. More studies have demonstrated that most other antidepressants on the market can and will trigger the growth of new neurons. Even more interesting is the fact that besides humans, adult animals grow new neurons when given antidepressant drugs.
Though there are many other interactions in the brain with antidepressants, their primary beneficial effect from them is derived from their ability to produce neurogenesis. Now if scientists can only figure out a way to induce the amount of neurogenesis that antidepressant medication does without creating a new drug!
5. An Enriched Environment
Science has long known that living in a mentally stimulating environment vs. an impoverished environment is far better for brain development. Research has found that exposure to an enriched environment enhances neurogenesis functioning and is able to regulate emotionality.
Scientists have found that memory-based tasks were far improved in the hippocampus region of the brain when human beings are raised in a healthy, enriched environment. One study found that mice put in stimulating environments actually had larger hippocampus regions than did those living in “standard” or “poor” laboratory conditions. They discovered a direct correlation between an enriched environment and the amount of neurons produced in the brains of mice. This had a significant effect on neurogenesis!
6. The Act of “Learning”
Though scientists have long known that new brain cells are able “enhance learning” – they never thought that “learning” could actually cause the birth of new brain cells… that is, until recently. In recent animal studies, researchers have found that there was a direct relationship between “learning” and the survival rate of newly-birthed brain cells.
When researchers taught certain rodents a wide-variety of cognitive tasks which involved a wide-range of brain areas – scientists found that the more the animal “learned” – the more new neurons were able to survive in the hippocampus. Scientists have made it clear that “learning” can increase the presence of new neurons in the brain.
Brain cells that are born in the hippocampus, which normally die off, are literally “rescued” by “learning” experiences. There is still plenty of research being conducted in this area and not all sources agree. However, your best bet is to keep your brain power boosted and your mind sharp. Always try to learn something new!
7. Restricting Caloric Intake
The phenomena of calorie restriction has continued to puzzle researchers. They have found that eating less food can lead to significant increases in longevity. Even when starting calorie restriction in middle age, it is able to produce around a ten to twenty percent increase in life-span. It has also been associated with hundreds of biological changes and can harbor our ability to produce new brain cells.
Restricting calorie intake has been associated with increases in neurogenesis and a better overall neuroprotective effect in the brain. Scientists have found that calorie-restricted animals nearly always stay active and healthy up until the end of their lives’. This phenomena has also been associated with a significantly lowered likelihood of developing a degenerative brain disease and can even produce new nerve cells!
*8. Infared Light Helmets
Though the use of infared light helmets is relatively new, researchers believe that they may help patients with Alzheimer’s disease by helping them grow new brain cells. Developer of this infared light helmet, Dr. Gordon Dougal, (also the director of medical research at medical research company Virulite) believes the helmet will hit the market about 1 year from now. It works by aiming low levels of infared light at the wearer’s brain. Next, it stimulates neurogenesis in the brain, suggests research.
More on how this works according to its inventor [Dr. Gordon Dougal]: “How we hope it’s going to work is that the infrared light will be facing inside the helmet onto the actual person, onto their skin, onto their brain, and actually goes on the frontal part of the bones, so it goes onto the actual front part of the brain and the side of the brain.”
“The side of the head and their skull are relatively thin, so the light will penetrate the skull and treat the underlying brain tissue. And the top of the head is also quite thin, and the light will penetrate the brain tissue at that point.”
For more information, view the sources:
LE Magazine: June 2002 – Calorie Restriction, Exercise, Hormone Replacement, and Phytonutrients Fight Aging – Age Conference – Madison, Wisconsin
Harvard University – Meditation found to increase brain size – Mental calisthenics bulk up some layers By William J. Cromie – Harvard News Office http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2006/01/23-meditation.html
Antidepressants Grow New Brain Cells – About.com; http://mentalhealth.about.com/cs/psychopharmacology/a/neurogenesis.htm
Sci STKE. 2003 Aug; (195):318. Antidepressants and Hippocampal Neurogenesis. Santarelli L, Saxe M, Gross A, Surget A, Battaglia F, Dulawa S, Weisstaub N, Lee J, Duman R, Arancio O, Belzung, Hen R.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 2007 Mar; 27(13): 3252-3259. Experience-Specific Functional Modification of the Dentate Gyrus through Adult Neurogenesis: A Critical Period during an Immature Stage. Tashiro A, Makino H, Gage FH.
Stanford University Research In Progress: HD & Lifestyle http://www.stanford.edu/group/hopes/rltdsci/inprogress/ae2.html