The recent discovery that new neurons are continuously added to the brain throughout life has sparked much excitement for neural regenerative medicine, a field in which neural stem cells can be exploited to replace neurons lost due to injury and neurodegenerative conditions. Under normal conditions, new neurons (particularly in the hippocampus) seem to play roles in learning and memory as well as in helping the brain cope with stress. Thus it is likely that boosting neurogenesis may be beneficial for various aspects of cognition and mood. A large amount of research is going into the development of new drugs and medications that can increase neurogenesis for regenerative purposes and treatments of various learning and mood disorders.
However, a truly satisfactory neurogenesis boosting drug might not become reality for a while given that adult neurogenesis is an extremely new field in comparison to the rest of neuroscience. Personally, I don’t think it will happen for at least 50 years.
Now let me tell you a secret: If you are in the health field and looking to increase neurogenesis, you won’t actually need these drugs even if they do exist. In fact, there are natural ways of robustly increasing your own neuron growth. I’m going to tell you what they are.
First, you must repeatedly read that exercise is good for you because exercise produces “feel-good” hormones. Another reason to add to the list — exercise increases neurogenesis as well. In 1999, Henriette van Praag and her colleagues at the Salk Institute placed wheels into mice’s cages and observed after two weeks of wheel-running exercise that neurogenesis in their hippocampi increased to almost twice that in mice housed without wheels.
The fact that exercise increases neurogenesis makes a lot of sense in light of other research that points to the cognitive benefits of hitting the gym. Later works by René Hen show that neurogenesis has a direct impact on learning and memory. As a result, boosting neurogenesis may be one of the biological pathways by which physical activity leads to cognitive enhancement.
In addition to exercise, van Praag and her colleagues discovered that environmental enrichment can affect neurogenesis. Neural stem cells proliferate during the process of neurogenesis to give rise to neurons. However, the majority of these neurons do not survive long enough to become integrated into preexisting neural circuitries. The scientists found that this environmental enrichment, like housing mice in bigger cages equipped with toys (such as tunnels and platforms), resulted in increased survival of newborn neurons.
In conclusion, this classic 1999 study taught us one important lesson in regard to lifestyle: You need to stay physically and mentally active. Both exercise and environmental enrichment can increase neurogenesis. This is important both for aspects of learning and memory as well as for stress regulation. Thus you can naturally boost neurogenesis without needing external interventions or medications by constantly being active and mentally enriching yourself.