Stirring tea

Can Brain Cells Regenerate?

Neuroscience is always a popular area of study for A level students. For many years we have thought that the cells of the brain and the nervous system, the neurones, were incapable of replication and that the brain cells at birth remained static, so that if they died, they were not replaced. The loss of function and memory as the body ages was said to be due to the loss of brain cells.

It was first brought to my attention that this may not be the case some fifteen years ago when I attended a training day at The Royal College of Pathologists. I was lucky enough to be there with a press pass, reporting for The Biomedical Scientist.

The day consisted of several lectures, concerning the ‘hot topics’ of the time. One lecturer introduced the concept of replacement neurones in the spinal cord of rats that had received spinal injuries. I was interested to learn that the nervous system contained stem cells, immature undifferentiated cells, in the olfactory bulb – and that these cells could be harvested and inserted into the spinal cord. While this research had a promising prognosis for humans with spinal injuries, I’ve never actually seen this research expanded upon or published since.

Earlier this week I came across some research supporting neurogenesis – the generation of new neurones, so I felt compelled to take a closer look.

Scientists now know that neurogenesis occurs in specific regions of the adult brain. Research in the 1990s involving adult monkeys found cell regeneration in the parts of the brain responsible for memory formation, decision making and learning.

Continued research in humans has replicated these findings. Stem cells have been found in the olfactory bulb (responsible for sensory information related to smell) and the hippocampus (in an area responsible for memory formation. It’s also thought that the hypothalamus (responsible for hormone activity and the autonomic nervous system) and the amygdala (emotional control) may regenerate.

It’s clearly early days, but scientists are predicting that the field of neurogenesis will evolve to be able to treat both physical and emotional disorders. There is also focus on the usefulness of neurobics. Neurobics are exercises that put emphasis on improving memory performance and changing the concentration points on physical activities – such as stirring your tea anticlockwise if you automatically stir in clockwise, or brushing your teeth with the non-dominant hand.

Even complex video games have a role in the regeneration of neurones, so maybe it’s time I invested in a gaming console after all.