The hippocampus, though only seahorse-sized, is one of the brain’s great powerhouses. It is what controls self-control, memory of times and places as well as spatial memory and navigation. In other words, the hippocampus is what understands the world around us. However, researchers are now worried that modern life may be causing this body part to shrink, according to Real Clear Science.
One attribute of the hippocampus is that it is “plastic,” meaning that this section of the brain can morph, depending on various factors. These factors include environment, damage and use. However, this ability has been bad for modern life since many today’s situation has led to hippocampus shrinkage, or what Douglas Mental Health University Institute researcher Véronique Bohbot calls hippocampal disuse.
Bohbot believes that “the sedentary, habitual and technology-dependent conditions of modern living today are changing how children and adults use their brains,” and that brains are becoming smaller as a result.
With the shrinking hippocampus bringing serious health concerns, Bohbot called attention to the most major.
“People who have shrunk hippocampus are more at risk for PTSD, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression,” she said.
“For a long time we thought the disease causes shrinkage in the hippocampus. But studies show that the shrunk hippocampus can be there before the disease.”
Though Bohbot’s message is still a hypothesis rather than proven science, her concept could help explain the exploding rates of people stricken with depression, anxiety and Alzheimers. In a report issued by insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield, the health provider found that rates of depression had increased by 33 percent since 2013. Teens, who perhaps have been most put upon by modern lifestyles, have shown the highest growth rate of depression, according to NBC News.
Though the brain is not a muscle, scientists believe that this body part nonetheless requires “mental exercise” to stay in shape. For the hippocampus, the best mental exercise appears to be spatial navigation, which Bohbot claims has been disappearing in modern times.
Spatial navigation holds a particular allure in some scientific communities, as there is growing evidence that the brain uses “spatial environment to support memory and to guide future action,” via Nature.com.
“Maybe in the past we never had to go on autopilot,” Bohbot said. “Having jobs in one location and lives being more habitual is new. Industrialization learned to capitalize on the habit-memory learning system.”
To help grow the hippocampus, Bohbot suggests playing video games that challenge spacial awareness, like Super Mario 64. Walks or weekend trips to explore new places also seem to help. Beyond those experiences, exercise and meditation have been shown to have a positive effect as well.