April 9, 2018 / 6:29 PM / 16 days ago

New brain memory cells develop well into old age

(Reuters Health) - Well into our 70s, we continue to develop new cells in an area of the brain responsible for new memories and exploration of new environments, scientists report.

“These new brain cells sustain our abilities to make new memories, learn, and cope with the environment, and they are important for emotional responses,” Dr. Maura Boldrini from Columbia University in New York City told Reuters Health by email. “These neurons might be important in humans for our abilities to transmit complex information to future generations and to sustain our emotionally guided behavior, as well as for integrating complex memories and information.”

Dr. Boldrini’s team studied the brains of 28 men, women and children, ages 14 to 79, who had died from conditions not involving the brain. They focused on an area in the brain’s hippocampus - called the dentate gyrus - that’s thought to play a role in memory, learning and other critical functions.

Even the oldest brains produced new brain cells. The number of developing and immature brain cells remained stable across the age range, the researchers reported in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

There was, however, a decline in the ability of mature nerve cells to change their function - a property known as neuroplasticity - with increasing age. Neuroplasticity is what allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to respond to new situations.

The decline in neuroplasticity was more pronounced in older people with fewer newly-formed blood vessels.

“We know that vasculature can become weaker with aging, and we need to find ways to keep our (blood vessels) healthy so that our brain can remain more plastic,” Dr. Boldrini said. “This means that through healthy lifestyle, enriched environment, social interactions, and exercise” - all of which help maintain healthy blood vessels - “we can maintain these neurons healthy and functioning and sustain healthy aging.”

Dr. Maria Llorens-Martin from Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain has studied the link between neurogenesis (the ability to create new cells) in the hippocampus with Alzheimer’s disease. She told Reuters Health by email that the new findings strongly support the theory that boosting creation of new cells in the adult hippocampus might help to preserve cognition during aging.

Dr. Shikha Goodwin from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who recently reviewed the latest research on neurogenesis, offered this practical advice in an email to Reuters Health: “Keep doing the best you can. Eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise. (And) don’t forget to be happy.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/2GJN2Vp Cell Stem Cell, online April 5, 2018.

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