Healthy old men and women can make just as many new brain cells as young people, says a study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. Previous studies have said that new brains cannot produce new neurons and growth of new brain cells seize after a certain age. This is the first kind of study which counters that belief.
“We found that older people have similar ability to make thousands of hippocampal new neurons from progenitor cells as younger people do,” said lead author Maura Boldrini, associate professor at Columbia University. “We also found equivalent volumes of the hippocampus (a brain structure used for emotion and cognition) across ages. Nevertheless, older individuals had less vascularization and maybe less ability of new neurons to make connections.”
The researchers analyzed the hippocampus from 28 previously healthy humans aged 14-79 who had died suddenly. Most of the previous studies have been performed on rodents and primates whose ability to generate new brain cells declines with age. However, this is the first time the researchers have analyzed human brain immediately after death. They looked for the newly formed neurons and the blood vessels within the entire hippocampus region.
The researchers from Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute found that older humans form fewer new blood vessels within brain structures. Older people also have limited capacity to differentiate and self-renew cells. This may be because of the reduced cognitive-emotional adaptability in old age. “It is possible that ongoing hippocampal neurogenesis sustains human-specific cognitive function throughout life and that declines may be linked to compromised cognitive-emotional resilience,” said Boldrini.
This study, according to researchers, brings hope to keep the brain healthy and well-functioning even in old age. The researchers are keen to find more about the aging brain. They would continue to explore how neural cell proliferation, maturation, and survival are regulated by hormones, transcription factors, and other inter-cellular pathways.