You can help your kids develop healthy brains with learning

Harold Mandel's picture
A human brain
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There is a lot of interest in the possibility of speeding up the intellectual development of kids by teaching them things when they are young. The potential to create unusually brilliant kids by starting them off in learning when they are very young is intriguing. New research says the benefits of early learning may be particularly beneficial when this occurs during adolescence at which time learning may help keep brain cells alive.

Thousands of new cells which are born in the hippocampus during puberty may survive if effort is taken to learn new things reported Frontiers in Neuroscience. There are new nerve cells generated from part of the hippocampal formation of the brain which is associated with learning throughout life. There are thousands more nerve cells produced during puberty than during adulthood, and there are many fewer produced during the elderly years. During adulthood about half of these cells die shortly after they are generated. The majority of these cells can be saved from death by the effort to successfully experience learning new things.

The newly-generated cells differentiate into neurons once they are saved. The nerve cells remain in the hippocampus for at least several months where many new hippocampal cells also undergo cell death during puberty. The researchers hypothesized a great number of cells could be saved from death by learning during puberty because the juvenile brain is more plastic than during adulthood, and because many experiences are new.

The adolescent brain is very responsive to learning

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In research with rats the adolescent rats that successfully acquired what is called the trace eyeblink response retained thousands of more cells than animals that were not trained in this manner, and those rats that failed to learn. Due to the fact that the hippocampus generates thousands more cells during puberty than during adulthood, these results are in support the idea that the adolescent brain is particularly responsive to learning. It appears such a massive increase in cell proliferation during adolescence is probably an adaptive response as a young animal must emerge from the care of its mother to face the dangers, challenges, and opportunities which are associated with becoming an adult.

The researchers concluded that using your brain, particularly during adolescence, may have a dramatic effect on helping brain cells to survive and could have an impact on how the brain functions after puberty reports Rutgers University. Neuroscientist Tracey Shors, who co-authored the study, observed that the newborn brain cells in young rats that were successful at learning survived while the same brain cells in animals that failed to master the task quickly died.

The process of learning keeps new cells alive

Shors has said it’s not that learning makes more cells, but instead that the process of learning keeps new cells alive that are present already during the time of the learning experience. Because the process of producing new brain cells on a cellular level has been found to be similar in animals, including people, Shors says ensuring that adolescent children learn at optimal levels is very important. Shors also says that this study gives us a view at what is happening in the adolescent brain and offers a window into the amazing ability which the brain has to reorganize itself and to form new neural connections at such a significant time of dramatic transformation in our lives.

This study offers us the fascinating prospect that learning, particularly during the critical time of adolescent development, has the potential to make us smarter while also helping us to develop healthier brains. It therefore appears wise to suggest that adolescents and others should strive to get good nutrition, exercise daily if possible, find time to relax and sleep well, and never stop learning new things. Your brain is a unique entity which deserves to be treated well at all times.

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