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Nurturing Newborn Neurons Sharpens Mind
More newborn neurons (light green
blotches near orange areas) are visi-
ble in part of the hippocampus of an
adult mouse in which neurogenesis
was genetically enhanced (right) than
in a control mouse; © Amar Sahay,
Ph.D., Columbia University
Adult mice engineered to have more newborn neurons in their brain memory hub excelled at accurately discriminating between similar experiences – an ability that declines with normal aging and in some anxiety disorders. Boosting such neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus also produced antidepressant-like effects when combined with exercise.
"These mice with more young neurons were better at recognizing patterns – tasks that become more challenging as we age," explained Doctor Rene Hen of Columbia University in New York City. "A deficit in this ability can also contribute to anxiety, as over-generalization sometimes leads to mistaking ambiguous cues as threatening. Our study demonstrates that the stimulation of adult neurogenesis is sufficient to improve such pattern recognition behaviour, but, while necessary, not sufficient to lift depression-like behaviour."
"By helping to disentangle effects of enhanced neurogenesis on cognition from those on mood, this study brings us closer to understanding how it might be harnessed in the service of better treatments for disorders like depression, post traumatic stress syndrome and panic disorder, as well as for cognitive decline," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel.
In earlier studies, Hen and colleagues had shown that birth of new neurons in the hippocampus was necessary for the therapeutic effects of current antidepressant medications. Since it takes weeks for these cells to grow and become integrated into brain circuits, this helped to explain the delay in symptom improvement experienced by patients. Evidence has also emerged that environmental enrichment and exercise can also stimulate neurogenesis and produce antidepressant-like effects. Yet the exact contributions of increased adult neurogenesis remained elusive.
To identify them, the researchers used mice lacking a gene that normally kills off 50-80 percent of newborn neurons in the adult hippocampus. These mice with a relative surplus of adult-born neurons were champs at learning to discriminate between a chamber where they had previously received a foot shock and a similar-looking chamber that was safe.
Yet, the mice with genetically enhanced adult neurogenesis did not show improved anti-anxiety or antidepressant-like behaviours, such as increased exploration in anxiety-producing situations. Such behaviours emerged in these mice only after four weeks of wheel running exercise, suggesting that neurogenesis might need to be accompanied by some kind of environmental enhancement to produce such effects.
MEDICA.de; Source: NIH/National Institute of Mental Health