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Future Health


November 7, 2016 

It was once thought that each of us had a set number of brain cells that slowly declined as we aged. Although the rate of cell death does seem to accelerate over the years, new research has shed light on an optimistic notion that these same cells are also being created each and every day.


Before talking about new growth, it’s important to understand the function of neurons and why they’re important. Neurons are electrically excitable cells found in the nervous system that operate to read and send information through various signaling mechanisms to other neurons and to tissues in the body. These signals, which utilize electrical impulses and chemical messengers are happening at rapid speeds of more than 200 miles per hour and are all firing simultaneously to create a network of communication that allows us to carry out our daily activities. Nerve cells are also relied upon for our learning and memory processes, which are especially important as we age.


It’s well established that we’re all losing brain cells as part of the normal cycle of our life and things like environmental toxins, head trauma, certain diseases and medications can lead to an accelerated decrease in the total amount that we have – which is around 100 billion. Yet it’s not as bad as it seems. Research in the past decade has highlighted a phenomenon called neurogenesis, or growth of new neurons in the brain, which is occurring on a daily basis. Some newer research is now exploring how quickly the turnover rate for new neurons is, how we can speed up this process and how to preserve our total number of nerve cells to accomplish such things as keeping our memories sharp as we age, avoiding disease and maintaining the ability carry out more complex thinking and problem solving.


Where are neurons being produced?

The hippocampus is the grey structure in the center of our brains that is important for learning, memory, mood and emotion. It’s also responsible for generating new neurons in the adult brain; approximately 700 a day to be precise.  One study published by the national center for biotechnology looked at things that either increased or decreased the production of new nerve cells in the brain and spine.


Factors that increase Neurogenesis

  • Cardiovascular exercise, particularly running
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Calorie restriction
  • Caffeine
  • Flavonoids found in blueberries and dark chocolate
  • Folic acid found in leafy greens
  • Zinc found in spinach and beef
  • Resveratrol found in grapes and red wine


Things that accelerate neuronal cell death

  • Vitamin A, B, E deficiencies
  • Diet high in saturated fat
  • Overconsumption of alcohol


Mice that were active and ran every day showed a drastic increase in new cell growth compared with the groups that were forced to stay sedentary. This factor is thought to be one of the most influential in determining whether or not individuals will experience significant new growth over the course of their lives.  We already knew that cardiovascular exercise was important; this is another reason to add it to the to-do list.


Restriction of calories was shown to be another strong influence in genesis of nerve cells. As the body is under restriction it is forced to provide less energy to each organ except to the brain, which receives extra nourishment. Scientists think this is a survival mechanism that causes temporary shrinking of organs and increased activity of the brain.


So whether you are at the age where your memory is starting to decline, want to stay sharp, or have a family history of brain disease, it’s a good idea to stay active and be sure to include some of the foods in your diet that contain the plant pigments, vitamins and minerals listed above.