What is neurogenesis, and what is its role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases? Let’s learn more about how it affects brain health here.
Understanding Neurogenesis in Humans
The term neurogenesis combines the word neuro, meaning relating to the nerves, and genesis, which means the formation of something. So, neurogenesis essentially refers to the birth of new nerve cells, neurons.
At birth, the human brain consists of about one billion neurons.
Unlike other cells, neurons don’t regenerate or reproduce. That means once they die, they’re gone for good.
Previously it was thought the creation of new nerve cells, neurogenesis, took place mainly when a baby was developing. However, research demonstrated that you can generate new cells in your adult life which helps encourage their production.
Brain health is so important, and neurogenesis plays an important role in that.
What Are Neural Stem Cells?
Up until relatively recently, it was thought that adult neurogenesis was impossible. It was believed that the birth of neurons happened during development before birth and was restricted to early childhood years.
This idea was challenged a few decades ago, starting with evidence suggesting adult neurogenesis was actually possible.
Now, a growing body of research suggests new neurons are born throughout your life in two specific neurogenic areas in the brain—the dentate gyrus (DG) and the subventricular zone (SVZ). These cells are created not from the division of mature cells but from the differentiation of neural stem cells (NSC).
What are stem cells? These are basic cells which turn into other cells of the same type through differentiation.
Stem cells can divide indefinitely to create more stem cells or differentiate to produce more specialized cells. Stem cells can produce different types of cells that have a specific job through a process known as differentiation.
Stem cells can produce specialized cells such as neural progenitor cells. These progenitor cells can then differentiate into specific types of neurons.
A distinctive characteristic of a stem cell is its ability to self-renew through cell division. This allows stem cells to retain a collection of parent stem cells, which can be used to create new cells in the body.
Neural stem cells are self-renewing cells that have the ability to develop into numerous specialized cells. NSCs can both produce new neurons and glial cells, which are brain cells that help to support and protect your neurons.
Where Does Neurogenesis Take Place?
Neural stem cells live in specific regions of the brain known as “neurogenic niches.” These regions have the right environment, which allows neural development to take place.
In adult mammals, the two neurogenic regions are the dentate gyrus (DG) and the subventricular zone (SVZ). Neurogenesis tends not to take place outside of these regions.
The SVZ is the site where neuroblasts are formed, an embryonic cell that develops into a neuron after the migration process. While most neuroblasts tend to die off after being generated, some go on to be functional in the tissue of the brain.
Much of the research carried out on neurogenesis has been in the DG in the hippocampus. In the adult brain, neurogenesis appears to take place in the hippocampus.
This area of the brain is particularly known for cognitive function, memory, learning, emotions, anxiety, and response to stress.
Because stress has been known as the precursor to several health problems, not just neurodegenerative diseases, hippocampal neurogenesis helps improve your stress receptors and, in turn, your overall health.
Neurogenesis can mean so much for your brain’s health, whether you are 20 or 75. Your learning abilities, memory, and even how you respond to stress can be improved because of neurogenesis.
A landmark study in 2013 created a model of cell turnover in the hippocampus over the lifespan of a human based on estimates of neuronal aging. Researchers found that significant neurogenesis took place in the hippocampus, and the whole process of neurogenesis may be a big contributor to brain function.
How Are New Neurons Created?
Neurogenesis refers to the formation of new cells, but how exactly are new neurons created?
Neural stem cells (NSC) switch between a dormant and an active state depending on where they are in their cell dividing cycle. They can remain dormant for a long period of time but once activated, they can start to self-renew, which means dividing and producing more neural stem cells that can transition into neurons.
For new neurons to be fully generated, cells have to undergo several stages of neurogenesis, including the activation of NSCs, migration, and integration into the existing neuronal circuit. Research has shown that NSCs have migrated long distances throughout the body to injured brain areas suggesting adult neurogenesis may be a way in which the brain tries to heal itself.
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Why Is Neurogenesis Important?
The generation of new neurons helps the brain respond to cognitive demands more effectively. The hippocampus is adaptive and may benefit from the integration of new neurons within the neuronal circuit.
If you want to keep producing new cells throughout your life, you need to engage in activities that stimulate the brain. Try brain exercises like simply doing things using your non-dominant hand, stimulating your olfactory bulb by smelling new scents, or joining an art class.
Learning and memory are vital for the creation of new cells. Whether it’s speaking another language or learning to play a new instrument, keeping your mind active encourages new cell production.
Aside from keeping your mind active, you need to keep your body active, too.
Research has found that physical exercise boosts neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus. This may be useful in repairing brain damage.
Aerobic exercise not only boosts the production of endorphins, but it also helps in providing more oxygen to the brain and other important organs in the body.
So, pick something new you’ve never done before and start learning how to do it. Be sure to get lots of aerobic exercise to stimulate your brain.
You want to keep your mind sharp and healthy for as long as possible.
Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity
The brain has an amazing capacity to adjust to and adapt in response to cognitive, environmental, and emotional challenges. The term neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity of the nervous system to adapt and react to changing situations.
Brain plasticity allows for constant upgrades, always optimizing and enhancing neural functions, and fine-tuning your brain to your environment. With the power of the human brain, you can adapt to new environments, change bad habits, or learn new languages..
Neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, is at the core of the brain’s plasticity. When neurons are just newborns in the adult brain, they can adapt and be particularly sensitive to your emotions, environment, and behavioral experiences.
This means changes in the brain can take place because of your environment or behavior. Your thoughts and emotions may be able to cause changes in the brain itself.
Studies suggest the brain can employ its neuroplastic capacities quicker when learning a new skill as opposed to continuing with a task you already know how to do. That’s why it’s important to stimulate your brain cells by constantly adding something new to your routine.
Neurogenesis allows the brain to adapt to your environmental demands and optimize cognitive function and response. It creates the building blocks for improving your performance, making it easier to learn new skills and increase emotional control.
Your Environment and Behaviors Affect Neurogenesis
The process of generating new cells is very sensitive and highly influenced by external and internal factors. Your environment and daily behaviors can impact your cognitive function.
A stimulating environment with plenty of physical exercise, social interactions, and sensory experiences can enhance the rate of neurogenesis.
For example, healthy and good nutrition can affect the rate of neurogenesis. Getting enough sleep can also impact neurogenesis, specifically hippocampal neurogenesis.
So, it’s important to take care of your health overall. You don’t just want to start eating better.You also shouldn’t forget about exercise or taking care of your mental health as well.
This includes meditation, a healthy diet, reducing stress in your life, and exercising often, even if it’s only for a brief walk. You can also increase neurogenesis activity in the brain by breaking your high-fat diet and incorporating more healthy fatty acids and nutrient-filled foods like fruits and vegetables into your diet.
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All aspects of health build upon one another. You’ll start to notice you have greater cognitive focus, ability, memory, and stress response than ever before.
This is truly how you can take your own health into your hands and start feeling the best you’ve ever felt.
The brain is incredibly smart and powerful. The process of giving birth to new neurons to change itself and potentially heal the brain is something that has only truly been researched in the last 20 years.
In 1998, experts were finally able to prove neurogenesis does take place in adult human brains. This discovery led scientists to continue to unravel and understand the role of neurogenesis and the part it plays in cognitive function and brain health.
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So, start taking an active role in your health for your brain’s sake and for your own happiness.
Take this seriously and try to implement changes in your life where you learn new things and keep your brain active. You might even find something new that you love to do simply because you made the decision today to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge your brain.
Do you think neurogenesis can help prevent brain-related illnesses like Alzheimer's disease? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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