Parents who convince their defiant children to wear bike helmets because ‘brain cells don’t grow back’ may need to devise a new disciplinary strategy in years to come. Although other bodily organs—heart, lungs, kidneys—can generate new cells to replace damaged ones, until recently it was thought that the brain was incapable of such structural change.
A few years ago, neuroscientist Fred Gage (and colleagues) observed ‘neurogenesis’, the birth of new neurons, in birds, apes and yes, human beings. We do make these replacement parts, but our brains seem to struggle to integrate them into the existing structure. If we could direct the neurogenesis, we could effectively start to rebuild our brains from within. Furthermore, we might even be able to add neurons to healthy brains—an idea which brings a whole new meaning to buying your education.
The challenge now is to find ways of both stimulating neurogenesis and controlling where and how rapidly it takes place. Gage imagines a time when a patient can take a pill which will induce neurogenesis appropriately to deal with specific CNS diseases—multiple sclerosis, depression, Parkinson’s disease.
Meanwhile, Gage has a less high-tech suggestion:
The best ways to augment brain function might not involve drugs or cell implants but lifestyle changes. Like many other organs, the brain responds positively to exercise, a good diet and adequate sleep, which are already known to enhance normal brain function with fewer side effects than most of the other strategies described…I predict that if more people know that a proper diet, enough sleep and exercise can increase the number of neural connections in specific regions of the brain, thereby improving memory and reasoning ability, they would take better care of themselves.1
Has too much brain research driven Gage mad?
E N D N O T E S
1. Fred H. Gage, ‘Brain, repair yourself’ in Scientific American, September 2003, p.35.
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