In Brain, Exercise, Memory, Stress, Wellbeing by DC McGuireLeave a Comment

Spread the word, please share!Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

Brain - hippocampusA pair of thumb-sized struc­tures deep in the cen­ter of the human brain are crit­i­cal for our abil­ity to learn and remem­ber. Thanks to their shape, each of them is called hip­pocam­pus — which means sea­horse in Greek. These brain areas have the unique capac­ity to gen­er­ate new neu­rons every day. In fact, recent human stud­ies have shown that there are 700 new brain cells in the hip­pocam­pus every day. Most of these neu­rons, how­ever, do not sur­vive. In their new-born (pre-mature) phase, they need a great deal of sup­port to sur­vive, grow, and become an active mem­ber of the hip­pocam­pal com­mu­nity of neurons.

Research shows that we have the capac­ity to grow new neu­rons above and beyond what is gen­er­ally pro­duced in our hip­pocam­pus and to make them become mature and strong within weeks and months.

The best way to gen­er­ate new hip­pocam­pal neu­rons is to exer­cise. In one study com­par­ing brains of two groups of mice, the group that was assigned to run­ning (lived in a cage with a run­ning wheel in it) gen­er­ated far more new neu­rons in their hip­pocam­pus than the group that was assigned to a reg­u­lar cage with­out a run­ning refill. Other stud­ies have shown that peo­ple who exer­cise reg­u­larly and are phys­i­cally fit have a much big­ger hip­pocam­pus. The more you walk, the big­ger your hip­pocam­pus will get and the less would be your risk for devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease. One study showed that walk­ing one mile a day low­ers the risk of Alzheimer’s dis­ease by 48%.

Recent research has also pro­vided infor­ma­tion about how hip­pocam­pus can grow even with­out gen­er­at­ing brand new neu­rons. The small pre­ma­ture neu­rons that are born every day have the capac­ity to grow taller, larger, and stronger by get­ting the right nutri­tion, plenty of oxy­gen, a mol­e­cule called BDNF (Brain Derived Neu­rotrophic Fac­tor) and stim­u­la­tion. Some of the ways we can mature and nour­ish hip­pocam­pal neu­rons include eat­ing a Mediter­ranean diet that includes olive oil, salmon and other food that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, and nuts. Omega-3 fatty acids are also avail­able as DHA and EPA sup­ple­ments. My recent research, pub­lished in Nature Reviews and ref­er­enced below, showed that higher blood lev­els of these impor­tant fatty acids, which are the build­ing blocks of neu­rons, is asso­ci­ated with larger hip­pocam­pus size, bet­ter mem­ory, and a much lower risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s disease.

The fas­ci­nat­ing new neu­ro­science dis­cov­er­ies have pro­vided com­pelling evi­dence on how other sim­ple lifestyle inter­ven­tions can also grow the hip­pocam­pus size. Stress reduc­tion and med­i­ta­tion, for exam­ple, have been shown to sub­stan­tially expand the vol­ume of hip­pocam­pus. Treat­ment of sleep apnea, with using a CPAP machine, is another way you can grow your hippocampus.

Learn­ing a new lan­guage or chal­leng­ing one’s brain by learn­ing new facts is yet another way to grow the very part of your brain that is crit­i­cal for our abil­ity to keep your mem­o­ries alive for a life­time and stay sharp as we get older.

Unfor­tu­nately, hip­pocam­pus can shrink as eas­ily as it can grow. Some of the ways to quickly shrivel it within months or years include stress, anx­i­ety, untreated depres­sion, obe­sity, uncon­trolled dia­betes, seden­tary lifestyle, eat­ing junk food, and con­cus­sions. Each of these neg­a­tive risk fac­tors have been asso­ci­ated with a smaller size hip­pocam­pus and a higher like­li­hood of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease in the future.

In sum­mary, for the first time we have solid sci­en­tific evi­dence that we all have the capac­ity to grow the part of our brains that shrinks with aging and makes us prone to devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease. A big­ger hip­pocam­pus can pro­tect us against demen­tia symp­toms in our 70s and 80s. These excit­ing new dis­cov­er­ies should empower all of us to be proac­tive in keep­ing our brain healthy today and to ward off Alzheimer’s dis­ease decades later.


Article by Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chair­man of Mem­o­syn Neu­rol­ogy Insti­tute, Med­ical Direc­tor of Neu­roGrow Brain Fit­ness Cen­ter, and Affil­i­ate Staff at Johns Hop­kins Howard County Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal.

Leave a Comment