Scientists Uncover Surprising New Tools to Rejuvenate the Brain

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Scientists used to believe that our neurologic fate was sealed at birth with a single, lifetime allotment of brain cells.

The thinking went – not so very long ago – that little by little, with the bumps of age and lifestyle, this initial stash of neurons died, taking our brain function along with them. Yet, strange as it may sound, canaries, video games, and young blood are finally putting that idea to rest. Studies involving bird song, gaming, and the rejuvenating factors of young blood have shown not only that neurons can be generated throughout adulthood, but also that the maddening aspects of aging, such as memory loss and slower processing speed, can be partially reversed.

Both neuroscientists and coal miners revere the canary, but for entirely different reasons. Like humans, canaries are known in neuro-science as “open learners,” meaning they learn throughout adulthood. “Canaries learn songs, like we learn language, from older adults when young,” explains Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, a stem cell neurobiologist at UCSF. As they get older, they tweak their songs seasonally to distinguish themselves during mating season. Alvarez-Buylla’s mentor, neuroscientist Fernando Nottebohm, suspected that as these parts of the canary brain assembled and disassembled for the yearly acquisition of the new mating song, new neurons were being taken on board. Such a notion was unimaginable at the time.

“When Nottebohm proved by morphology, electrophysiology, electron micro-scopy, and connectivity between 1983 and 1986 that the new cells were neurons, the whole field of stem cell science became a lot more exciting,” recalls Alvarez-Buylla. The jaws of neuroscientists throughout the world dropped at the possibilities posed by Nottebohm’s finding. Neurogenesis offered a new way to repair damage wrought by age, neurological injury, or disease.

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