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Can you really grow new brain cells? How neurogenesis works and why it matters

Do we really have any influence over what goes on in our brains on a cellular level? You might be surprised.

Over the last few decades, our understanding of what happens in our brains (and more importantly, how these events affect our mental health) has grown and evolved by leaps and bounds.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the existence of neurogenesis (the creation of neurons, aka brain cells) in the adult human brain was widely accepted by the scientific community.

In fact, until some scientists observed the birth of shiny new neurons in rats in the 1960s, it was regarded as an unquestionable (if unhappy) fact that we (and all biologically mature animals) were stuck with a limited number of brain cells.

The good news is that we now know the dentate gyrus produces neurons throughout life (and adulthood)...the not-so-great news is that most of them are goners.

More than 50% of new brain cells die within weeks of their creation.

And as it turns out, our behaviors impact how many of these baby brain cells survive. But it’s best to start at the beginning, with where these brain cells are made (the dentate gyrus) and why they matter so much for mental wellbeing.

The dentate gyrus and neurogenesis

Neurogenesis takes place in the dentate gyrus (among other regions).

This tiny banana-shaped region of the brain located in the hippocampus does the vital work of growing new brain cells, in addition to playing an essential role in the creation of new memories and our ability to move around in our environment (known as spatial memory).

This part of the brain is also involved in the process of filing similar memories as separate events, or pattern separation. When our minds don’t file our memories correctly, something called overgeneralization can happen, wherein we react with stress or even fear to anything related to an entire category of experiences (say going out to eat at a restaurant).

This happens because a previous experience was traumatic (e.g., we got food poisoning, or were broken up with in a similar setting on a different occasion).

Perhaps because of its role in how we label memories (pattern separation) and create new brain cells, poor functioning of the dentate gyrus has been connected to stress-related conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Both animal and human studies have shown that the dentate gyrus is actually physically smaller in individuals with chronic stress and depression.

Research has confirmed neurogenesis (in humans and animals) as well as its role in mental health.

@nci via Unsplash

Fortunately, restoring the functioning of the dentate gyrus (and with it neurogenesis) is possible and can lead to recovery over time.

Researchers have been able to genetically engineer cells in mice to treat this issue. However, for those of us who aren’t laboratory animals, there are still plenty of options to help us keep our rate of neurogenesis high—without letting scientists tinker with our brains.

We have far more influence on our minds (all the way down to a cellular level) than we may imagine.

Actions to take to encourage neurogenesis

Read on for some evidence-based advice to follow to keep your brain growing and changing.

1. Move your body.

Beyond its myriad benefits to our overall physical and mental health, movement may also promote the creation of new brain cells. A study published in the Journal of Physiology shows sustained aerobic exercise increases neurogenesis in rats.

2. Deal with stress.

Instead of letting stress build and build until you’re ready to scream or curl up in a ball or both, take action. Stress isn’t just bad for your mood; it’s bad for your brain. Studies show it can even impair neurogenesis.

So when you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, take a few minutes to relax with deep-breathing, or give Foundations' A mindful walk a try—this one combines two things that are good for the brain—centering your thoughts in the present moment and getting a move on.

3. Get a handle on your emotions.

Emotional regulation doesn’t sound like much fun, but it really is the key to successful relationships...and keeping stress managed.

So when you have a strong reaction to something, or a thought keeps coming to mind, try journaling (on paper, or in your Foundations Thought record) to get whatever it is out of your head for a while.

4. Practice mindfulness meditation.

This centuries-old practice has been shown to improve grey matter density in parts of the brain such as the hippocampus (where the dentate gyrus lives) and increase melatonin levels (that support neurogenesis).

If you’re not sure how to get started, Foundations has guided activities such as Mindful body scan, Mindful breathing, and Mindful posture designed to help you get your mind back to the present moment and relax.

5. Get plenty of rest.

Sleeping poorly doesn’t just wear you out; it slows down your brain’s production of new brain cells. Protect your mind (and your mood and overall health) by making good rest a priority.

If you have trouble getting to sleep, try our Guided audios for sleep, or one of our relaxing nature soundscapes. For some quick tips check out our blog post on recovering after a poor night's sleep.

6. Challenge yourself.

An "enriched", aka stimulating or challenging environment has been shown to have a positive effect on neurogenesis in mice, raising new neuron survival rates and improving memory recall. Some ways to keep your (human) brain stimulated are socializing with friends, learning new skills, and travel...or you could always look for an oversized exercise wheel.

Effortful learning, wherein you concentrate on an activity in the present moment over an extended period of time, absorbing new knowledge or a new skill in the process has also been shown to help keep new neurons generated by your dentate gyrus alive (which is the goal after all).

What are you willing to do to take care of your brain? Let us know what you think at foundations@koahealth.com.