Remember when we were told that you were born with all the brain cells you would have and they would not reproduce? Not true! This theory was debunked in 1998 and researchers have never looked back. Neurogenesis – the birth of neuronal cells – is now a widely studied field, especially when it comes to age-related health issues like Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. In Down syndrome, neurogenesis is of particular interest as the number of neurons is reduced in the hippocampal region of the brain. According to animal research, new neurons have been shown to help improve memory, mood, language ability, and attention.
Key in promoting neuronal development is a neurotrophin protein called BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor. (Nerve growth factor or NGF is another important neurotrophin protein that will be discussed in a later blog post.) BDNF was found deficient in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, depression, dementia, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa. Science tells us we do have some influence over our DNA to produce BDNF through various means; antidepressants like lithium and fluoxetine (Prozac), and dietary supplements such as DHA (omega-3 fatty acid) and curcumin (compound found in the Indian spice tumeric) have been found to promote neuronal development. Research also points to intellectual stimulation, calorie restriction, and caffeine intake for increasing nerve cells.
It might surprise you to learn that physical activity is one of the most researched and promising ways to promote neurogenesis. (In Down syndrome, with its increased risk of overweight and hippocampal issues, exercise may provide a two-fold benefit.) In a new study (PMID 21282661) of 120 older adults, scientists showed that aerobic exercise increased hippocampal volume by 2%, reversing age-related loss in volume by 1-2 years resulting in improved memory function. Researchers demonstrated that increased hippocampal volume is associated with increased serum levels of BDNF.
Remember the next time you exercise, you are not only working on making your body healthier, but your brain too!
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