Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Empowering Brain Cells

Move a muscle, change a thought.

The brain has two superpowers: neuroplasticity (the capacity to grow and change its network of brain cells with every experience, action, and thought) and neurogenesis (the capacity to grow new brain cells in the memory-processing hippocampus for its entire lifespan). 

Much of what scientists have learned about the human brain is owed to small creatures that suffer from a negative reputation, but are owed a debt of gratitude.  Because so many parallel discoveries have been made in research on mice, rat, and human brains, findings from rodent research should be assumed to apply to humans.

Brain cells in our hippocampus are critical to memory formation.  They become part of a network of brain cells that increases in complexity as we learn and grow.  The rate of neurogenesis declines between early and mid-adulthood, and by old age becomes infrequent. 

New research on mice indicates that adult-born brain cells have a unique reserve of plasticity during aging, which is when the brain can become vulnerable to decline.

Neonatally-born brain cells experience growth in their branches (dendrites that make connections with other brain cells to form networks) for about 2 weeks and then undergo a pruning selection process from 2 to 7 weeks.  Adult-born brain cells follow that same growth pattern, but then experience a growth spurt of branches from 7 to 24 weeks.  These brain cells gained a primary branch (increased from 1 primary branch to 2 primary branches), grew more total branches, and showed longer branch length and greater branch density.  Although neonatally-born brain cells mature faster, adult-born brain cells increase in plasticity (by adding branches), likely making unique contributions to hippocampal function for the lifespan of the brain cell.  The models from this research predict the addition of 6 million brain cell branches between the 1st and 2nd year of an adult-born brain cell’s life. 

Neurogenesis is increased by aerobic exercise and intellectual stimulation, and new brain cells and their plasticity empower thinking and memory.

Takeaway:  To encourage brain cell growth in the memory-processing hippocampus, commit to some form of exercise that raises your heart rate for 30 minutes at least 3 times per week. 

Sources

Move a muscle change a thought, change a thought and you change your life., attributed to Tuchy Palmieri.

Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 823, 829-834 (2013) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2227155.

John Darby Cole, Delane Espinueva, Desiree R. Seib, Alyssa M. Ash, Matthew B. Cook, Shaina P. Cahill, Timothy O’Leary, Sharon S. Kwan, and Jason S. Snyder, Adult-Born Hippocampal Neurons Undergo Extended Development and are Morphologically Distinct from Neonatally-Born Neurons, Journal of Neuroscience 22 June 2020 (original research posted July 15, 2019), https://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2020/06/22/JNEUROSCI.1665-19.2020.

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