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Source: XStudio3D/Shutterstock

For over a decade, neuroscientists have been trying to figure out how neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (the malleability of neural circuits) work together to reshape how we think, remember, and behave.

This week, an eye-opening new study, “Adult-Born Neurons Modify Excitatory Synaptic Transmission to Existing Neurons” reported how newborn neurons (created via neurogenesis) weave themselves into a “new and improved” neural tapestry. The January 2017 findings were published in the journal eLife.

During this state-of-the-art study on mice, neuroscientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) found that the combination of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity caused less-fit older neurons to fade into oblivion and die off as the sprightly, young newborn neurons took over existing neural circuits by making more robust synaptic connections.

For their latest UAB study, Linda Overstreet-Wadiche and Jacques Wadiche—who are both associate professors in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Neurobiology—focused on neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus region of the hippocampus.

The dentate gyrus is an epicenter of neurogenesis responsible for the formation of new episodic memories and the spontaneous exploration of novel environments, among other functions.

More specifically, the researchers focused on newly born granule cell neurons in the dentate gyrus that must become wired into a neural network by forming synapses via neuroplasticity in order to stay alive and participate in ongoing neural circuit function.

There are only two major brain regions that are currently believed to have the ability to continually give birth to new neurons via neurogenesis in adults; one is the hippocampus (long-term and spatial memory hub) the second is the cerebellum (coordination and muscle memory hub). Notably, granule cells have the highest rate of neurogenesis. Both the hippocampus and cerebellum are packed, chock-full with granule cells.

Interestingly, moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is one of the most effective ways to stimulate neurogenesis and the birth of new granule cells in the hippocampus and the cerebellum. (As a cornerstone of The Athlete's Way platform, I've been writing about the link between MVPA and neurogenesis for over a decade. To read a wide range of Psychology Today blog posts on the topic click on this link.)

Instituto Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Madrid, Spain
Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1899.
Source: Instituto Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Madrid, Spain

Granule cells were first identified by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who made beautiful sketches in 1899 that illustrate how granule cells create synaptic connections with Purkinje cells in the cerebellum. His breathtaking and Nobel Prize-winning illustrations are currently on a museum tour across the United States (on loan from the Instituto Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Madrid, Spain) as part of "The Beautiful Brain" traveling art exhibit.  

(As a side note, the olfactory bulb is the only other subcortical brain area known to have high rates of neurogenesis. Speculatively, this could be one reason that scent plays such an indelible and ever-changing role in our memory formation and ‘remembrance of things past.’)

Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity Work Together to Rewire Neural Circuitry

One of the key aspects of neural plasticity is called Neural Darwinism, or "neural pruning," which means that any neuron that isn’t ‘fired-and-wired’ together into a network is likely to be extinguished. The latest UAB research suggests that newborn neurons play a role in expediting this process by "winning out" in a survival of the fittest type of neuronal battle against their more elderly or worn out counterparts.

Long before there were neuroscientific studies on neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, Henry David Thoreau unwittingly described the process of how the paths that one's mind travels can become hardwired (when you get stuck in a rut) by describing a well-worn path through the woods. In Walden, Thoreau writes,

"The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!"

From a psychological standpoint, the latest UAB discovery presents the exciting possibility that when adult-born neurons weave into existing neural networks that new memories are created and older memories may be modified.

Through neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, it may be possible to carve out a fresh and unworn path for your thoughts to travel upon. One could speculate that this process opens up the possibility to reinvent yourself and move away from the status quo or to overcome past traumatic events that evoke anxiety and stress. Hardwired fear-based memories often lead to avoidance behaviors that can hold you back from living your life to the fullest. 

Future Research on Neurogenesis Could Lead to New PTSD Treatments

Granule cells in the dentate gyrus are part of a neural circuit that processes sensory and spatial input from other areas of the brain. By integrating sensory and spatial information, the dentate gyrus has the ability to generate unique and detailed memories of an experience.

Before this study, Overstreet-Wadiche and her UAB colleagues had a few basic questions about how the newly born granule cells in the dentate gyrus function. They asked themselves two specific questions:

  1. Since the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus increases by neurogenesis while the number of neurons in the cortex remains the same, does the brain create additional synapses from the cortical neurons to the new granule cells?
  2. Or do some cortical neurons transfer their connections from mature granule cells to the new granule cells?

Through a series of complex experiments with mice, Overstreet-Wadiche et al. found that some of the cortical neurons in the cerebral cortex transferred all of their former connections with older granule cells (that may have been worn out or past their prime) to the freshly born granule cells that were raring to go.

This revolutionary discovery opens the door to examine how the redistribution of synapses between old and new neurons helps the dentate gyrus stay up to date by forming new connections. 

One of the key questions the researchers want to dive deeper into during upcoming experiments is: “How does this redistribution relate to the beneficial effects of exercise, which is a natural way to increase neurogenesis?”

In the future, it's possible that cutting-edge research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity could lead to finely-tuned neurobiological treatments for ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dementia. In a statement to UAB, Overstreet-Wadiche said,

"Over the last 10 years there has been evidence supporting a redistribution of synapses between old and new neurons, possibly by a competitive process that the new cells tend to 'win.’ Our findings are important because they directly demonstrate that, in order for new cells to win connections, the old cells lose connections.

So, the process of adult neurogenesis not only adds new cells to the network, it promotes plasticity of the existing network. It will be interesting to explore how neurogenesis-induced plasticity contributes to the function of this brain region.

Neurogenesis is typically associated with improved acquisition of new information, but some studies have also suggested that neurogenesis promotes 'forgetting' of existing memories."

Aerobic Exercise Is the Most Effective Way to Stimulate Neurogenesis and Create Adult-Born Neurons

For the past 10 years, the actionable advice I've given in The Athlete's Way has been rooted in the belief that through the daily process of working out anyone can stimulate neurogenesis and optimize his or her mindset and outlook on life via neuroplasticity.

"The Athlete's Way" program is designed to reshape neural networks and optimize your mindset. Since the beginning, this program has been based on the discovery that aerobic activity produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and stimulates the birth of new neurons through neurogenesis. I describe my philosophy in the Introduction to The Athlete's Way,

"Shifting the focus from thinner thighs to stronger minds makes this exercise book unique. The Athlete's Way does not focus just on sculpting six-pack abs or molding buns of steel. We are more interested in bulking up your neurons and reshaping your synapses to create an optimistic, resilient, and determined mindset. The goal is transformation from the inside out.

My mission is to get this message to you so that you can use neurobiology and behavioral models to help improve your life through exercise. I am a zealot about the power of sweat to transform people’s lives by transforming their minds. My conviction is strong and authentic because I have lived it."

I created The Athlete's Way along with the indispensable help of my late father, Richard Bergland, who was a visionary neuroscientist, neurosurgeon, and author of The Fabric of Mind (Viking).

A decade ago, when I published The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (St. Martin's Press) I put neurogenesis and neuroplasticity in the spotlight. At the time, the discovery of neurogenesis was brand new, and still a radical notion in mainstream neuroscience.

In the early 21st century, most experts still believed that human beings were born with all the neurons they would have for their entire lifespan. If anything, it was believed that people could only lose neurons or "kill brain cells" as we got older.

Understandably, when I published The Athlete's Way in 2007 there were lots of skeptics and naysayers who thought my ideas about reshaping mindset using a combination of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity through moderate to vigorous physical activity were ludicrous.

For the past 10 years, I've kept my antennae up and my finger on the pulse of all the latest research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity hoping to find additional empirical evidence that gives more scientific credibility to my system of belief and The Athlete’s Way methodology. 

Needless to say, I was over the moon and ecstatic this morning when I read about the new research by Linda Overstreet-Wadiche and Jacques Wadiche that pinpoints the specifics of how adult-born neurons modify existing neural circuits. This is fascinating stuff!

These are exciting times in neuroscience. Modern day neuroscientific techniques are poised to solve many more riddles regarding the complex mechanism by which neurogenesis and neuroplasticity work together as a dynamic duo to reshape our neural networks and functional connectivity between brain regions. Stay tuned for future empirical evidence and scientific research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity in the months and years ahead. 

In the meantime, if you'd like to read a free excerpt from The Athlete’s Way that provides some simple actionable advice and practical ways for you to stimulate neurogenesis and rewire your brain via neuroplasticity and moderate to vigorous physical activity—check out these pages from a section of my book titled: "Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis: Combining Neuroscience and Sport." 

References

Elena W Adlaf, Ryan J Vaden, Anastasia J Niver, Allison F Manuel, Vincent C Onyilo, Matheus T Araujo, Cristina V Dieni, Hai T Vo, Gwendalyn D King, Jacques I Wadiche, Linda Overstreet-Wadiche. Adult-born neurons modify excitatory synaptic transmission to existing neurons. eLife, 2017; 6 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.19886

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