It was long thought that the brain cells you were born with, were your only stock for your whole life. Any changes in your brain were down solely to neuroplasticity – neural networks adapting through new connections or neural pruning. However, a relatively modern finding in neuroscience is that you grow new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. This even occurs into old age.
Like with neural pruning, if new neurons aren’t put to use they’ll likely die off. But if they are involved in some kind of effortful learning, or activities which demand concentration over an extended period of time, then they can be kept long term. This emphasizes the importance of learning in the growth of our brains throughout our lives.
Something few people are aware of, is that new neurons in adult brains are actually more plastic and have increased excitability. For this reason it’s thought they can play a special role in improving cognitive rehabilitation outcomes for conditions such as brain injury or stroke.
More recent science is showing that rates of neurogenesis are affected by our lifestyles. In fact there are many ways being discovered to boost the growth rates of new neurons, so let’s take a look at 5 of them here.
An Enriched Environment
Activities such as learning a new skill, traveling, language learning, making new or deeper social connections, and taking on intellectual challenges, are all stimulants of neurogenesis. It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing novelty, and being mentally challenged on a regular basis.
This approach of new experiences and fresh challenges is key, because not only does it trigger new neuron growth, it also makes those new brain cells likely to stay with you long term. An enriched environment also means simple things like good sleep, which helps clear the brain of toxins, and exposure to sunlight, which triggers production of vitamin D and growth hormones.
Considered a panacea for health, exercise has significant effects on the brain as well as the body.
Aerobic activities such as running, cycling, swimming, and even sex, are effective ways of boosting neurogenesis. The aim is getting the heart pumping for more than 20 minutes at a time, and on a regular basis. In this state levels of several growth hormones are elevated in the brain.
In addition, increased endorphins help reduce stress, something which can have negative impacts on neurogenesis.
We are what we eat, and without the right biological materials to work with the body cannot produce new cells of any type efficiently. We covered Superfoods for the brain in a recent blog. A key thing is consuming the right fats, as these make up 60% of the brain raw material. Omega 3s are especially important for neurogenesis.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, there are also indications that temporary fasting or caloric restriction triggers increased growth of neurons, due to a survival response.
Though most forms of psychoactive substances are illegal for public use, there is interest from a medical perspective for the treatment of cognitive conditions or diseases. Perhaps due to reducing fear, psilocybin (AKA magic mushrooms) has been found to boost neurogenesis, as has cannabis, which also appears to increase neuroplasticity. Other more traditional substances such as Ketamine (a mild anesthetic) and Ibogaine (from a tree root) likewise show promise for upping levels of neurogenesis.
Some forms of anti-depressants may also be helpful, but more research is needed.
In another recent blog, we also revealed that there are many studies showing how meditation (in the form of yoga) can be beneficial for both mind and body. Practiced over time, meditation can support neurogenesis by increasing grey matter density, hippocampal volume, and melatonin levels.
It is also known to be effective in decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression – all factors which can restrict the growth of new neurons.
Neuroscience is discovering a great deal about the way your brain can adapt by growing new brain cells throughout your life. It’s likely that in this new domain of research, much more will be discovered in coming years. However, what we already know is that there are plenty of practical strategies for enhancing your brain function and health, with long term benefits.
If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating field of neuroscience, try this blog.
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