A teacher came up to me at a recent conference. She was glowing about how much she’s been learning about the brain. Naturally, I was happy for her. I asked her what she was most excited about. She said, “Well…just that the brain can change and grow… and it’s got all those dendrites, axons and synapses!”
I smiled because I remember the same excitement when I first got excited about the brain. I wanted so badly (as did the teacher) to be able to label the new learning. Labeling things (e.g. new vocabulary) gives us a way to store the terms in our brain by category, function or word part. Labels are important to our learning.
Unfortunately, the excited teacher didn’t seem to get exposure to the most important part of the new learning experience: the relevant properties of the label. The properties are such a critical feature of learning, that the labels are nearly irrelevant without them.
What does this have to do with one of the 5 greatest discoveries in neuroscience?
Without any doubt, one of the top five discoveries, in the history of mind/brain science is neurogenesis. This discovery (Eriksson, et al.,1998) showed that humans can and do produce brand new brain cells, even as we are elderly and dying of cancer. As of this writing, we know that they are being produced in at least three areas of the brain, including the hippocampus. This discovery overturned over 100 years of scientific dogma. It also forced us to modify our outdated paradigm of how our brain works. It is, in fact, far more malleable than we earlier thought.
But that’s not the main point…
The real “1-2 punch” behind the discovery of neurogenesis did not happen for several years after the original event. The amazing follow-up discoveries: 1) defined what the functional role of neurogenesis in the brain is, and 2) helped us understand what regulates the process of neurogenesis.
First, it turns out that neurogenesis is highly correlated with learning, mood (Jacobs, et al., 2000) and memory (Deng, et al, 2010). That’s about as important as you can get in terms of what we expect of kids at school. Those “big three” qualities are the reason WHY we should use strategies and support policies that enhance neurogenesis.
Second, OUR OWN daily behaviors can tell our brain to make fewer cells (“downregulate”) or to make more brain cells (“upregulate”). This means that what we do at school can directly influence the brain. But, is there evidence to support this position?
And, if there is, what do we do at school to strengthen neurogenesis? I knew you’d ask that question.
Here are some of the properties of neurogenesis that you should know. The fact that this process exists and is regulated is exciting, but you should know the details.
First, neurogenesis is boosted by exercise (Pereira AC, et al., 2007). In the human study, participants did voluntary gross motor activity for almost an hour, four times a week for 12 weeks. We do not know, at this time, whether one hour is the minimum amount of time needed or if half that time period would work just as well.
What does this suggest to us? Schools that reduce or eliminate recess or P.E. are making a serious, brain-changing mistake. There is no evidence, at this time, that diagramming a sentence, learning states and capitals, or reading about Napoleon will build brain cells. Classroom teachers should promote movement and activity, regardless of what the formal school scheduling has arranged.
We know that dietary restriction also increases hippocampal neurogenesis (Kitamura T, et al. 2006). These studies were done over a 12-week period, which suggests that skipping one meal, probably won’t turn one into an Einstein.
What does this suggest to us? This fact may be just as important in teaching kids about nutrition as teaching them about their fat intake. This suggests that eating less (if you are eating nutritious foods) can actually support mood and memory. Classroom teachers can help promote “smarter eating” (less food) as well as eating the so-called “brain foods” that are good for the brain.
We know that sleep loss reduces neurogenesis. In fact, prolonged sleep loss can inhibit hippocampal neurogenesis independent of any effects from the stress hormones. (We already know excess cortisol reduces neurogenesis.) Just minor sleep restriction may interfere with the enhancement of neurogenesis associated with learning processes, but the prolonged sleep disruption may even endanger hippocampal integrity, thereby leading to cognitive dysfunction (ouch!) and contributing to the development of mood disorders (Meerlo, et al., 2009). Sleep can, in fact, help make you smarter and a lot less crabby.
What does this suggest to us? Include parents in the sharing of this information. Remind kids that their brain likes the “down time” even if there’s one more Tweet or email.
Let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above: exercise, eat less and get your sleep. That sounds pretty ho-hum. But that’s just for starters! There are actually over 20 known factors that influence neurogenesis! I’m putting together an amazing list of these factors, some of which are “stealth” ones that I’ve been secretly using. This list will be shared in the upcoming January and June program called, “Teaching with the Brain in Mind”.
Until then, keep in tune with the research. Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!
Deng W, Aimone JB, Gage FH. (2010) New neurons and new memories: how does adult hippocampal neurogenesis affect learning and memory? Nat Rev Neurosci. May;11(5):339-50.
Eriksson, PS, Perfilieva E, Bjork-Eriksson T, Alborn AM, Nordborg C, Peterson DA, Gage FH (1998) Neurogenesis in the Adult Human Hippocampus. Nature Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 11, pages 1313–1317; November.
Jacobs BL, Praag H, Gage FH. (2000) Adult brain neurogenesis and psychiatry: a novel theory of depression. Molecular Psychiatry. May; 5 (3):262-9.
Kitamura T, Mishina M, Sugiyama H. (2006) Dietary restriction increases hippocampal neurogenesis by molecular mechanisms independent of NMDA receptors. Neurosci Lett. Jan 30;393(2-3):94-6.
Meerlo P, Mistlberger RE, Jacobs BL, Heller HC, McGinty D. (2009) New neurons in the adult brain: the role of sleep and consequences of sleep loss. Sleep Med Rev. 2009 Jun;13(3):187-94.
Pereira AC, Huddleston DE, Brickman AM, Sosunov AA, Hen R, McKhann GM, Sloan R, Gage FH, Brown TR, Small SA. (2007) An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Mar 27;104(13):5638-43.