A new study suggests older adults’ brains grow just as many new cells as younger brains do. Researchers found that old and young brains were capable of making the same number of new neurons from more primitive “progenitor” cells the brain’s hippocampus region. The study, titled “Human Hippocampal Neurogenesis Persists throughout Aging”, was published online in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
Scientists from Columbia University set out to see whether aging affects neuron production in humans. The team examined autopsied brain tissue from 28 people between the ages of 14 and 79 who’d died suddenly while in seemingly good health. The flash-frozen human brains were donated by families of the deceased at the time of death. None of the deceased had been diagnosed with any neurological or psychiatric disorder.
The study found that older and younger brains had similar numbers of “intermediate” progenitor cells and “immature” neurons. It’s not clear whether the new brain cells would have the same connections, or function the same, as younger adult brain cells do.
There were some major differences found in the brains of older and younger persons. The investigators found that older adults’ brains had less new blood vessel growth. They also discovered that a protein associated with helping new neurons to make connections in the brain decreased with age.
The hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain that previously shown to produce new neurons into adulthood. This region is involved in emotional control, emotional resiliency, and memory. The hippocampus typically shrinks in people with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
It’s important to figure out whether older adults who maintain a youthful-looking hippocampus did something specific over their lifetime that helped. Some lifestyle factors have been linked to the risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Discovering what the differences are might lead to new treatments for dementia.