Brain Fitness: Neurogenesis, Mood, PTSD

New brain fitness research by a team at Columbia University isolates neurogenesis as a factor in improved pattern separation (in mice).

At first glance the report of this brain fitness research seemed like old news. The researchers had boosted neurogenesis and shown improved pattern separation (pattern separation is the brain function that enables us to make fine distinctions, such as distinguishing between similar places, events and experiences). But surely many previous brain fitness studies have shown a connection between neurogenesis and improved cognitive ability, I thought? Enriched environments and physical exercise, in particular, had been demonstrated to boost neurogenesis and cognitive ability.

But the new study isolated neurogenesis from all of the other possible influences on the boost in pattern separation:  “In addition to stimulating neurogenesis, these earlier methods exerted many other effects on the brain,” said Dr. René Hen, PhD, lead researcher on the study and professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “As a result, you never knew with these older manipulations what’s due to neurogenesis, or what’s due to the other effects that these manipulations cause, and, indeed, what we find is that when you stimulate just adult neurogenesis, you actually get a subtle effect. Unlike broader manipulations, it does not affect all forms of learning, it’s very specific to tasks that require pattern separation.”

Dr. Hen points out that pattern separation is critical to many cognitive processes and boosting pattern separation could be beneficial to those with anxiety disorders, including PTSD, learning difficulties, cognitive loss due to aging or Alzheimers’, etc. “This paper, as a consequence, may stimulate a whole area of research in humans to try to determine who in the population may have a pattern separation deficit, and whether it is restricted to the emotional domain, or is present even while performing tasks devoid of emotional salience. Once these studies are done in humans, it may be possible to treat these people with specifically targeted drugs or more personalized therapies,” said Dr. Hen.

While targeted drugs could be one of the possible brain fitness options available to us, several years down the line, brain training software, physical exercise and enriched environments have been shown to bring about neurogenesis and cognitive gains and can be used today. Sure, they produce impacts in addition to neurogenesis, but these impacts are overwhelmingly, if not completely beneficial — such as increased blood flow and improved brain health.

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