Research Shows Humans May Regenerate Brain Cells Well Into Adulthood

The brain’s capacity for self-renewal is amazing.

For many years, medical doctors and research scientists believed the human brain had a limited capacity to undergo self-renewal as it aged, where unlike other organs of the body, loss of a cell to death or damage is not followed by growth of replacements. But according to a recently-released study, the neurons making up the bulk of the brain might actually be replenished well into adulthood. As such, perhaps the public service messages advising people that you only get a fixed amount of brain cells and therefore should not use illicit drugs and alcohol because they kill neurons may be in error.

To better understand the research and its significance, here is some background information on the architecture of the human brain.

The hippocampus, a structure at the base of the brain, is responsible for producing new neurons (the cells of which the brain is composed). More specifically, a module of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus is the site of neuron production. Until this recent study, scientists speculated that humans stop generating new neurons in adolescence, based on findings from rodents and non-human primates.

In fact, another study published just prior to the current one reported that neuron production does stop by our teenage years. Thus, the new findings have been met with a certain degree of skepticism by the scientific community, especially as both studies examined similar types of post-mortem brain tissue from nearly the same number of persons (~28 people) and roughly the same span in age (18-77 and 14-79 years of age). So, which study should we believe? How could two laboratories arrive at such distinct conclusions?

The prior report published by Sorrells et al. (2018) that nixed the idea of adult neurogenesis performed similar analyses as the current study. This group did not see young neurons or neurogenesis in the hippocampus much beyond the first years of life, in contrast to the later study which found evidence of neurogenesis persisting into old age or at least into the teenage years.

This is somewhat consistent but also contrasts with other investigations going back several decades employing different organisms. For example, rats and birds have been shown to experience limited to no adult neurogenesis, while frogs and zebrafish do.

The more recent study published by Bodrini et al. (2018) followed a similar methodology with two fundamental differences.

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