Use Them Or Loose Them

Unfortunately, as we go through life, we lose some of our neurons and the number that go will depend on things like diet and not doing all those things that our family doctors keep nagging us about. However, we do have a lot of them and they normally don’t disappear very rapidly.

From this point there is good news and bad news. The good news is that we make more in our hippocampus at a steady if not rapid rate. The bad news is that a lot of these die off in a week or two, so this is something that we need to pay attention to.

So what to do? We have to use them. They like to be useful and well exercised. We exercise them by putting them to work, and to do that, we have to learn new things. To study this Nokia et al from Rutgers U employed a team of adult male lab rats and trained them to wink in response to pulses of white noise, (well blink really) (1).

They were taught to give a trace blink or a long delayed blink. The electrical activity in the brains was measured and finally their new neurons were checked out and found to be surviving. The electrical oscillations in their hippocampi at around the 10 Hz range showed that they were learning.

The important thing is that learning new things sets up new neurons for a long life. If you change the task that has just been learned, you save more new neurons from ending up on the scrapheap rather than just exercising the ones that had just been deployed on the first version.

For us non-lab rats, our best strategy is not to just do crosswords (that’s the same task over and over,) but to try taking on something more difficult. Like learning to play a musical instrument and then try to learn more and more difficult pieces.

There are other things to take up too if your family or neighbors have trouble with your new violin or trombone. They don’t have to be loud. The result of the huge memory training that London cabbies go through is an increase in the size of their hippocampi as they learn all the back streets, alleyways, one-ways, and building locations (2).


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