How to Save New Brain Cells
Tracey J. Shors, Scientific American, March 2009, p47
In this fascinating article, professor of psychology at Rutgers University’s Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, Tracey J. Shors, discusses her findings from experiments to determine when and how neurons are produced and cared for. It turns out that we either use our brains or we lose them. Alcohol is bad, blueberries are good. Aerobic exercise is good, too.
Exercise and other actions may help produce extra brain cells. But those new recruits do not necessarily stick around. Many if not most of them disappear within just a few weeks of arising. Of course, most cells in the body do not survive indefinitely. So the fact that these cells die is, in itself, not shocking. But their quick demise is a bit of a puzzler. Why would the brain go through the trouble of producing new cells only to have them disappear rapidly?
It turns out that our brains produce new neural cells “just in case”. “If the animals are cognitively challenged, the cells will linger. If not, they will fade away.”
We think that the tasks that rescue the most new neurons are the ones that are hardest to learn, requiring the most mental effort to master.
Anecdotal accounts suggest that effortful learning may also help some patients.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and certainly as adults, many of us find it painful to learn something completely new. But if we want to keep our brains in shape, it probably would not hurt to learn a new language, take up tap dancing, or tackle some fast gaming after your Wii Fit workout—and it might even help.