Researchers believe learning in adolescence may play a role in keeping brain cells alive. At least this is what happened in an animal study.
Rutgers behavioral and systems neuroscientist Tracey Shors, Ph.D., found that the newborn brain cells in young rats that were successful at learning survived while the same brain cells in animals that didn’t master the task died quickly.
Since the process of producing new brain cells on a cellular level is similar in animals, including humans, ensuring that adolescent children learn at optimal levels is critical.
The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
“In those that didn’t learn, three weeks after the new brain cells were made, nearly one-half of them were no longer there,” said Shors.
“But in those that learned, it was hard to count. There were so many that were still alive.”
Researchers believe this discovery is important because it suggests that the massive proliferation of new brain cells most likely helps young animals leave the protectiveness of their mothers and face dangers, challenges and opportunities of adulthood.
By examining the hippocampus – a portion of the brain associated with the process of learning – after the rats learned to associate a sound with a motor response, scientists found that the new brain cells injected with dye a few weeks earlier were still alive in those that had learned the task while the cells in those who had failed did not survive.
“It’s not that learning makes more cells,” says Shors. “It’s that the process of learning keeps new cells alive that are already present at the time of the learning experience.”