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The Brain Keeps Making New Cells In Old Age, Study Suggests

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The brain constantly makes new nerve cells, even as people get older. Recent research has debunked a long-held belief that as the brain ages, it stops making new cells.

Researchers at Columbia University found proof that older brains produce just as many new cells as younger brains do, Live Science reports, contradicting years of scientific belief, including some recent studies. Maura Boldrini, a neurobiologist at Columbia, said,

When I went to medical school, they used to teach us that the brain stops making new cells.

But researchers started experimenting, and found the premise to be untrue. Studies in mice showed that older mice produced new nerve cells, and early studies on people showed similar results. This is the first study to thoroughly track brain cell production over the course of a person’s life.

Boldrini and colleagues studied 28 brains taken from the corpses of healthy people ages 14 to 79. These donated brains were unusual in the researchers already had plenty of information on them. The brains came from a library of donors assembled at Columbia, all of which had been preserved using the same methods, and came with detailed medical histories.

All of the brains were dead, but relatively healthy in that they did not show any severe disorders, were not taken from drug users or those taking antidepressants, which scientists believe can actually prompt cell growth.

The scientists sliced the hippocampi, an area of the brain that functions for learning and memory, and counted the number of newly formed cells under a microscope. This turned out to be a complex task, as human brains are bigger and more complicated than mice brains. Boldrini and the team used specialized computer software for the task.

While the older brains showed as many new cells as the younger brains, they did appear to make fewer new blood vessels, and were not forming new neural connections as quickly. Because of these results, the researchers suggest that this ability to continue making new cells might be a key to keeping brains healthy in old age.

The study was published in Cell Stem Cell.

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