Regeneration of Brain Cells

Brain Neural Network
The brains neural network is represented by lines and flashes. A neural network is made up of nerve cells (neurons). Credit: Alfred Pasieka/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Regeneration of Brain Cells

For almost one hundred years, it has been a mantra of biology - brain cells do not regenerate. In a startling discovery made in the late 1990s, researchers at Princeton University found that new neurons were continually being added to the brains of adult monkeys. The neurons were added to the cerebral cortex of the brain.

The cerebral cortex is the most complex part of the brain and scientists were startled to find neuron formation in this "high" brain area.

The cerebral cortex is responsible for higher level decision making and learning.

The researchers found the formation of new nerve cells, a process called neurogenesis, in three areas of the cerebral cortex:

  • Prefrontal region which controls decision making.
  • Inferior temporal region which plays a role in visual recognition.
  • Posterior parietal region which plays a role in 3D representation.

The researchers believed that these results called for a fundamental reassessment of the development of the primate brain. For almost a century, scientists have believed that primate brains do not regenerate or add new neurons after maturity. It was a fundamental tenet of neuroscience that the adult brain could not repair itself or grow new cells. Scientists have begun to chip away at the dogma as more research has shown that other areas of the adult brain, such as the hippocampus and the subventricular zone of the lateral ventricles, add new neurons.

Neuron stem cells have been shown to be able to produce new neurons as well as other central nervous system cells, such as astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. These cells are types of neuroglia that do not conduct nerve impulses but play a supportive role in the brain and spinal cord.

Many researchers believed that these other results were anomalies or were confined to "lower" parts of the brain.

The results from the Princeton University study were even more startling since they occurred in the most advanced part of the brain.

Researchers are optimistic that with further study scientists might one day unlock the key to this process of brain cell growth and use the knowledge to treat a variety of brain disorders and diseases. It is believed that similar processes occur in humans since monkeys and humans have very similar brain structures.

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