Some of the ways to spur neurogenesis (new neuron growth) may include administration of drugs to regulate new cell production, gene therapy, stem cell transplant, increased physical activity, and increased challenges to the brain, neuroscientists drawing mainly from animal studies suggest.
Of these options, only physical and mental exercises are currently achievable in humans.
Research evidence confirming the benefits of physical exercise for specific brain mechanisms is mounting.
The hippocampus is important for learning and memory. Animal studies show that an enriched environment with challenging toys for rats to play with more than doubles the survival rate of new neurons in the hippocampus and triples the rate in aged rats.
A study finds that running in an exercise wheel increased neurogenesis in rats by an impressive 80%. There are also 25% more synaptic connections formed in rats raised in enriched environment than rats that are not.
Other benefits on a molecular level include protection against the negative effects of stress and strengthening of immune response against infection.
Many of the studies on the benefits of physical exercise for mental functions are on animals. But emerging human studies also confirm these results.
A study led by Adrian Taylor of De Montfort University in the UK shows that a physical exercise regimen helps musicians reduce stage stress and improves concentration for optimal performance.
Scientists now believe that the “use it or lose it” principle applies to both nerve cell survival and neural circuits. Mental exercise can help maintain mental sharpness and may even be therapeutic, strengthening or re-establishing neural connections.
According to Paul Takahashi, a medical expert on cognitive decline at the Mayo Clinic in the US, regular mental exercise can improve memory.
Tips he provided include: learn a new skill to challenge your brain; develop a system of reminders and cues (write things down, establish a routine, and practice repetition); take time to focus attention on the things you need to remember; and practice relaxation techniques for mental calmness.
An example of a useful routine is to always put the door keys next to the door, or establish a regular route at the supermarket and visualize the items to be picked up along the route.
Neurologist David Feldman, who is the former secretary general of the International Institute of Special Education in Geneva, Switzerland, has developed a mental exercise program called the Bellefonds Institute Learning Strategies Program for children with learning disabilities.
It is comprised of simple, daily, repetitive visual, audio or tactile exercises designed to re-establish weak neural circuits. The purpose is to improve the integration of sensory perceptions, cognitive function and motor movements, as well as left-right brain hemisphere coordination.
For example, a divided field exercise may involve a child with learning disability standing in front of a hinged chalkboard that is opened slightly like an open book, and continuously draw looping circles on both the left and the right-hand board while saying the word “loop”.