It used to be held as common knowledge that an adult brain was a frozen one. Mature brains, the experts said, lost the ability to grow new neurons. During the 1990s, new research revealed just how wrong that common knowledge was. The discovery that mature brains are capable of neurogenesis opened up new paths of understanding for how to keep our brains healthy and potentially fight neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Most new cells in adult brains are born in the hippocampus, the region involved with learning and memory. However, they aren’t formed on a regular basis, and once they exist, they tend to die off very quickly. Exercise and certain dietary and lifestyle factors seem to stimulate the formation of neurons, and those same factors can keep the cells alive and functional. Essentially, your brain grows neurons on a provisional basis in response to stimulus, and if you don’t use them, you lose them. Targeted physical and mental activities seem to be key to the process.
Aerobic activity spurs the development of new neurons and it also appears to keep them from dying off once they’re formed. Physical actions that require training, as opposed to just exertion seem to work best; think dance, sports, games, martial arts and yoga. Similarly, effortful learning, mental activities that require concentrated study, activates new neurons, keeps older ones agile, and improves communication between brain cells. Things like studying a new language, meditation, doing crossword and logic puzzles, or learning a new skill like cooking or a musical instrument are all beneficial. Even playing video games seem to pump your brain up.
Once you’ve got all these healthy new neurons firing, what can you do with them? The answer is related to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself based on experience. Just as neurologists used to believe that adult brains couldn’t grow new cells, they also conceptualized brain functions as being rigidly tied to specific parts of the organ. Newer research into neuroplasticity shows that learning and acting have the power to change the brain’s physical structure and how it works. This means that your brain has the potential to use its supply of new neurons to fight degenerative diseases and the effects of aging on the brain.
The science is still evolving, but it’s believed that preserving new neurons can allow them to bolster the brain’s ability to fight cognitive decline and slow the progression of dementia. The plasticity of these cells means they can adapt to enhance learning and memory even when diseases like Alzheimer’s cause the degeneration of existing neurons.
Just because you aren’t a child doesn’t mean your brain can’t be limber and youthful. If you ever thought about learning to speak Italian or taking up ballroom dancing, do it for your neurons and start now. Activities like that provide just the kind of workout for your body and mind to ensure you memory is agile for years to come.