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Older people can grow just as many new brain cells as young once, study finds

For the first time, researchers show that healthy older people, men and women, can generate just as many new brain cells as young once.



Contrary to popular thought that adults did not grow new neurons, a new study counters that notion. For the first time, researchers show that healthy older people, men and women, can generate just as many new brain cells as young once.

Researchers at Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute autopsied hippocampi from 28 healthy individuals aged 14-79 who had suddenly died, and had not suffered from depression or taken antidepressants, which the researchers had previously found could impact the production of new brain cells.

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This is the first time researchers looked at newly formed neurons and the state of blood vessels within the entire human hippocampus soon after death.

Using the autopsied brain tissue, the researchers found that even the oldest brains they studied produced new brain cells. “We found similar numbers of intermediate neural progenitors and thousands of immature neurons,” lead author professor Maura Boldrini says.

“Older people have similar ability to make thousands of hippocampal new neurons from progenitor cells as younger people do,” Boldrini says. “We also found equivalent volumes of the hippocampus (a brain structure used for emotion and cognition) across ages. Nevertheless, older individuals form fewer new blood vessels within brain structures and possess a smaller pool of progenitor cells–descendants of stem cells that are more constrained in their capacity to differentiate and self-renew.”

In the study, published in the journal Stem Cell, Boldrini surmised that reduced cognitive-emotional resilience in old age may be caused by this smaller pool of neural stem cells, the decline in vascularization, and reduced cell-to-cell connectivity within the hippocampus.

The brain’s hippocampus is involved in regulating memory and emotions, and it typically shrinks in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is possible that ongoing hippocampal neurogenesis sustains human-specific cognitive function throughout life and that declines may be linked to compromised cognitive-emotional resilience,” she says.

According to Boldrini future research will continue to explore how neural cell proliferation, maturation, and survival are regulated by hormones, transcription factors, and other inter-cellular pathways.



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