For some time, experts have debated whether human adults continue to grow new brain cells (neurons), or whether we pretty much have all the neurons we’re going to have by the end of our teenage years or so.

The complete answer is far beyond the scope of this article, but we’d like to share some recent research from the University of Illinois at Chicago that is pretty intriguing! A research team headed by neuroscience professor Dr. Orly Lazarov examined the donated brains of a group of older adults to see if they could detect neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) even in older brains. In particular, they were looking in a part of the brain that’s involved in forming memories and learning—the hippocampus.

Their findings? Reports Dr. Lazarov, “We found that there was active neurogenesis in the hippocampus of older adults well into their 90s.”

And there was another surprise. Dr. Lazarov reported, “The interesting thing is that we also saw some new neurons in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment.”  The team found that people who had the tell-tale brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, but who also had more new brain cells, had shown fewer outward signs of the disease while they were alive. Neurologists are planning further research to better understand the connection between dementia and new brain cell growth.

Dr. Lazarov hopes this research will help in developing ways to increase the growth of new brain cells in people with dementia — and in every older adult. She says, “The more we find out, the better able we will be to develop interventions that may help preserve cognitive function even in people without Alzheimer’s. We all lose some cognitive function as we age — it’s normal.” 

Meanwhile, scientists mostly agree about the things we can do to protect our brains: eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise, manage all your health conditions, spend plenty of time with others, don’t drink too much alcohol or smoke at all, and continue to take part in mentally stimulating activities. Even people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other memory loss can benefit from these activities.

Source: IlluminAge reporting on research from the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can read more about Dr. Lazarov’s research at https://lazarov.lab.uic.edu/research.html.

The information in this article is not intended to take the place of your healthcare provider’s advice. Talk to your doctor about your own brain health, and report any concerns you might have.