Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Neurogenesis Now

Neurogenesis is a big word for the birth of nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells make the nervous system work, enabling us to think, move, and react in a glorious symphony of chemical and electrical impulses.

For a long time, scientists believed neurons stopped reproducing shortly after birth. In spite of this, we continue to grow and develop, neurally speaking, because new connections between existing neurons continue to form throughout our lives.

Recently (as of the '90s) scientists have conclusive research evidence that neurogenesis can continue into adulthood. What affect could the creation of new nerve cells have on our lives?
  • Improved learning, cognition, and better ability to access memories.
  • Stress reduction through better stress regulation, bolstering the function of the hippocampus (responsible for memory, cognition, and navigation) and inhibiting the amygdala (responsible for fear and stress).
Less stress, less fear, and more brain-power? Sounds like Total Body Happiness to me! Thus, the quest for neurogenesis begins!

Let's start by eliminating the #1 inhibitor of neurogenesis: sleep deprivation. We already know that sleep deprivation increases stress, disrupts mood, and even causes our bodies to hold onto fat.

Speaking of fat, we may be able to increase neurogenesis by increasing voluntary exercise, emphasis on voluntary. Studies show that when the beta-endorphin (which elevates mood) is produced during exercise, new nerve cells are increased and sustained in the brain -- though this is not the case in the absence of the beta-endorphin. No wonder it feels so great to find fun and engaging ways to exercise, but it feels so lame to push through a boring workout. 

Quick side note (since it's bad to be boring) another study I find relevant and interesting comes from the University of Saskatchewan (2005) where cannabidiol (CBD), the biggest property of the cannabis plant second only to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was also shown to cause regeneration of nerve cells in the hippocampus. From procon.org:

 "Cannabidiol, the main component of the glandular hairs [of Cannabis] is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid; it exerts a plethora of pharmacological effects, including anti-convulsive, sedative, hypnotic, anti-psychotic, anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory actions. Cannabidiol is a potent antioxidant compound and it has been recently proposed to have a neuroprotective role..."

The many benefits of cannabidiol is why medical marijuana is a thing now. Get used to it.

Tools to use:
I was inspired to start playing more games after watching Jane McGonigal's TEDTalk, "The game that can give you 10 extra years of life" -- a must-watch. Check out the Lumosity app, or Lumosity.com. Lumosity lets you build a personalized brain-training program that focuses on memory and attention. I play 3 quick brain-games a day, and I've already noticed that my simple math skills, which were sorely in need of a boost, are getting just that. I also like to play Ruzzle, a word search game, and Lost Cities, "two player Solitaire with an extra portion of suspense" that helps me practice odds- and risk-calculation as well as quick addition. Do what's fun for you; fun is good for you. 

Another must-watch TEDTalk: Tony Horton's "Health, Fitness, and Happiness: Rules to give you all 3." He's the P90X guy, and he explains the brain-derived neurotrophic factor in this 10 minute video about the benefit of exercise. To see results and continue to grow, Tony emphasizes the importance of variety, consistency, and increasing intensity in exercise.

"Exercise should be like brushing your teeth, or eating your meals, 
or showing up to appointments, or making sure you go to bed at night. 
It should be part of who you are, 5 to 7 times a week, for the rest of your life."
--Tony Horton

The hippocampus, and in particular the dentate gyrus is the site of stem cell populations in the brain
(see Ming GL and Song H, Neuron 2011 70(4):687-702).

What can you do to strengthen your brain and your body today?

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