Stimulating Nerve Cell Growth

In infant mice, an enriched environment of toys, high-quality food, games, and other stimuli increases nerve cell growth and branching in the brain. Compared to normally caged mice living a spartan existence, mice exposed to barely two months of this enriched environment show a 15 percent increase in the number of brain nerve cells. You know that in children, intensive education accompanied by strong nurturing and healthy social stimulation often leads to outstanding academic and subsequent professional success. It is as if these enviromental factors are the cognitive enhancers, the promemory agents, of childhood. But can a similar approach be used to boost memory in older people, whose nerve cells have largely lost the ability to reproduce?

Substances that stimulate the growth and branching of existing nerve cells, without necessarily increasing their number through a reproductive process, may enhance cognitive abilities. For example, infusing a naturally occurring substance called nerve growth factor into mice increases neuronal branching and improves connectivity among brain cells. These ideas are still in animal experimentation, but clinical trials are likely to begin with one or more neurotrophic compounds in the near future.

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