Neurogenesis is the process through which new neurons -- the basic building blocks of your central nervous system -- are produced. Scientists once believed that neurogenesis occurred only in newly developing organisms, but modern research has confirmed that the process continues throughout life, according to the Wellesley College Biology Department. A number of factors determine the rate at which new neurons develop. The foods you eat, and how much you eat, are among these factors.
Adult Neurogenesis Findings
Until the late 1990s, it was widely believed that you were born with a certain number of neurons, the total of which decreased with advancing age and sometimes at an accelerated rate because of illness or bad lifestyle decisions. The best you could hope for was to slow the rate at which your neurons disappeared. That theory changed forever with a landmark U.S.-Swedish study that was published in the November 1998 issue of “Nature Medicine.” Researchers from the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, unveiled findings that indicated “the human hippocampus retains its ability to generate neurons throughout life.” In the years since that finding, researchers have sought to discover ways in which the process of neurogenesis can be stimulated through dietary or other means.
Dean Ornish, M.D., a longtime advocate for healthier eating and increased exercise, offered his views on ways in which you can stimulate neurogenesis in an article that appeared in the September 7, 2007, issue of “Newsweek.” On the nutritional side, he observed that foods high in sugar and saturated fats slow or even halt the rate of neurogenesis, while foods that contain high levels of antioxidant-rich epicatechins accelerate neurogenesis. Of foods in the latter category, Ornish recommended blueberries, tea and moderate amounts of chocolate. He pointed out that small amounts of alcohol seem to increase neurogenesis, while larger amounts slow it down. He also noted that opiates, nicotine and cocaine impede the process of neurogenesis.
In a study designed to evaluate the effect -- if any -- of resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine, on the hippocampal abnormalities observed in chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, a team of Japanese researchers created an animal model of CFS. Symptoms of the syndrome were induced in mice through a series of six injections of the Brucella abortus antigen. Researchers then treated the mice with resveratrol. CFS-like symptoms decreased, and the mice showed evidence of renewed neurogenesis in the hippocampal regions of their brains. Researchers published their findings in the March 2011 issue of the “Biological Pharmaceutical Bulletin.”
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In a 2007 interview with “ScienceDaily,” Sandrine Thuret of London’s Kings College discussed some of her findings in in-vitro and animal studies of neurogenesis. She found that omega-3 fatty acids can stimulate sharply increased rates of neuronal cell development. She reported a 40 percent increase in the rate of hippocampal neurogenesis when omega-3 fatty acids were added to a cell culture dish containing adult hippocampal cells. Thuret also said that a modestly calorie-restricted diet seemed to stimulate neurogenesis. This occurred when laboratory animals were fed a diet that was 10 percent lower in caloric intake than the normal diet.
- Wellesley College Biology Department: Neurogenesis: What Is It?
- “Nature Medicine”; Neurogenesis in the Adult Human Hippocampus; P.S. Eriksson, et al.; November 1998
- “Newsweek”; Bigger Brains, Better Genes; Dean Ornish; Sept. 7, 2007
- “Biological Pharmaceutical Bulletin”; Resveratrol Improves Hippocampal Atrophy in Chronic Fatigue Mice by Enhancing Neurogenesis and Inhibiting Apoptosis of Granular Cells; J. Moriya, et al.; March 2011
- “ScienceDaily”; Antidepressants, Age, Exercise, Even Food Intake, Affect Generation of New Brain Cells; Nov. 9, 2007