New brain cells may actually appear in puberty in mammal brains, according to new research funded by the National Institutes of Health and performed by Michigan State University scientists. Lead author of the study Maggie Mohr explained that they performed the study on hamsters, but they believe the results will also apply to humans.
Mohr’s team injected male hamsters with a chemical marker that allowed them to track the development of cells in a critical part of the brain related to adult activity. When they got old enough to be interested in the opposite sex, the test animals were allowed to socialize with and even mate with females. The chemical markers showed that the hamster brains did indeed develop new cells during puberty and that the new cells remained active in the adult brain.
“Before this study it was unclear if cells born during puberty even survived into adulthood. We’ve shown that they can mature to become part of the brain circuitry that underlies adult behavior.”
For decades, the received wisdom was that you’re born with all the brain cells you’ll ever use. Generations of parents and teachers have scolded teens for doing stupid stuff that might damage their brains forever. Turns out that the teens in question might actually have more brain cells than the rest of us.
Groundbreaking brain researcher Fernando Nottebohm told Edwin Kiester, Jr., and William Kiester for The Smithsonian, “Once I was in the 5 or 10 percent of scientists who believed in neurogenesis. Now 95 percent accept that position.”
Neurogenesis is a fancy way of saying that brain cells can continue to develop and grow, even in adult brains. Nottebohm’s original research was conducted on songbirds including canaries. His once-controversial 1980s era study revealed that adult male canaries actually develop new brain cells during the courtship season when they’re learning and creating new songs to woo their mates.
Since then, his research has been confirmed and expanded many times. What’s new about Mohr’s research is that it shows that mammals also develop the new brain cells as they develop sexually.
Teenagers may not look as if they’re developing new brain cells, but if the Michigan study pans out, they probably are. The twist is that the brain cells may be programmed to help them socialize and attract mates — not focus on their studies. Oops.