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Can Seniors Create New Brain Cells?

There have been many debates about the science behind new brain cells. It makes sense that our brain cells may stop growing after a certain age. It also makes sense that they would continue to sprout up and take the place of dead brain cells. Both sides of the argument have reason and merit. But which side is actually correct on a scientific level? There’s a new report that has just been published about this exact subject!

This report came from scientists at Columbia University and basically says that our brains continue to make new neurons every day. Not just a few either. Our brains continue to make hundreds of new cells each and every day. Even after we reach our 70’s!

This scientific reporting was lead by Dr. Maura Boldrini. She’s one of the research scientists at Columbia in the psychiatry department. She got a group together to study the brain matter of 28 deceased individuals. These individuals ranged from 14 to 79 to properly gauge the demographics. It was easier to make comparisons about the neuron levels with the study conducted on people of different ages.

There have been other studies like this before, largely done on lab mice and primates. These studies have been conducted throughout many years and the evidence may or may not be conclusive. However, many of these studies show that neurogenesis became slower in the older subjects. This has led to the previous belief that human beings do not make new neurons after they’ve entered adolescence.

Boldrini wanted to know a more conclusive answer to the question “do human beings continue to make neurons after adolescence”. She decided to put together a research team to determine if it was the same way for human beings.

Each researcher looked for basic evidence towards the development of new brain cells. They noted the neurons in various stages of development. In older individuals, there was evidence of immature neurons and neural progenitor in all subjects. This lead the researchers to conclude that the human brain continues to produce neurons (brain cells) well into our older years.

Of course, the researchers discovered there were some differences between the young and older brains:

  • New blood vessels decrease with age
  • Protein that helps develop neurons decreases with age
  • Connections decrease between neurons

Now while there may be evidence that neurogenesis continues into adulthood, the brain does lack the ability to rewire after a certain age. It’s possible, but much more difficult. These means that the neurons are formed, but they don’t connect properly. This causes a reduction in cognitive thought, memory and emotional responses. Boldrini says “this might explain why some older people suffer from memory loss”.

Boldini’s research comes only a month after a San Francisco research team reported no evidence of neurogenesis after an individual had entered adolescence. In response to Boldini’s research, the San Francisco researchers said the research was “interesting” but weren’t convinced it was “conclusive evidence”.

They felt the images provided by Boldrini and her colleagues demonstrated a different shape and appearance from the neuron of children or other species. This difference in shape and appearance is what led them to report no findings.

In a professional response, Boldrini simply suggested they were working with very different samples. The sample tissue her research team used was preserved with no added chemicals. She suggested the tissue the other research team used had to be resorted with chemicals, which may have altered the results of their findings.

She also notes that all her subjects were healthy at death, therefore more beneficial samples than previous studies had access to.

“In science, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” she said. “If you can’t find something it doesn’t mean that it is not there 100%.”

You may be wondering why scientists are even looking into this information. Does it matter if we produce new brain cells?

One of the reasons this is such an interesting subject is because it could be beneficial for patients who suffer from dementia and other mental illnesses and conditions. This may lead to treatment options that don’t already exist. While there has been extensive research into many of these illnesses already, as a whole, we’re still pretty far from solutions. If neurogenesis continues into adulthood, we could see a future with less mental illness.

Imagine a world that has a treatment for dementia.

With a bit more research, there’s a chance we can make this futuristic ideal become a reality.  It would be such a relief if there was no more concern about our parents and grandparents beginning to suffer from this memory loss. No one wants to look at a loved one and not be recognized. It can be so heart-breaking for family members to see someone going through this type of illness.

“Conclusive evidence” or not, the study is a step towards finding the answer. We could be on the leading edge of science right now.

Dr. Niels Haan from Cardiff University is another person convinced that adult brains still produce new neurons. Although, he says “their function is unclear”. He goes on to say that “adult born neurons are required for various learning and memory processes” in animal models. He called the idea of adult neurogenesis a “promising area for potential treatments”.

Unfortunately, this means the debate is still going strong. There is no real answer to whether or not we’re actually on that leading edge of science. This study could stand alone as a possibility with no further research. However, I can imagine that this study is going to encourage future studies.

Maybe Boldrini will conduct a follow-up experiment. Maybe another University will take their chance at finding the answer. The more studies are conduced, the easier it will be to find an average and eventually determine an answer.

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