You May Not Be Losing Your Mind, After All

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For most of the century, scientists widely accepted the view that the brain goes through a huge growth spurt from the womb through a person's first few years and then spends the rest of life deteriorating. Since the mid-'80s, scientists have been aware of new brain cell growth after the formative years, but have debated whether or not the new growth affects advanced functions such as memory. Now researchers Elizabeth Gould and Charles Gross, in an article in Friday's edition of the journal Science, report that testing in monkeys shows the growth of new neurons that attached themselves to the cerebral cortex the epicenter of advanced brain activity.

"If we can understand better how it works, maybe we could use that to direct the regeneration and repopulation of neurons in damaged areas of the brain," Gould told the Associated Press, indicating the findings could help future scientists slow or reverse the effects of aging and brain diseases. While it is not known what function the new cells serve, one theory builds on research done by Rockefeller University's Fernando Nottebohm, who found evidence that the brain generates new cells to record events into memory, as opposed to the long-held belief that memories are formed solely through connections of existing neurons. Nottebohm's theory buttresses the notion that decreased production of brain cells as we age helps explain lapses in short-term memory and, conversely, that if brain cell growth can be increased then short-term memory can be improved.

But don't rush to your doctor expecting a cerebral fountain of youth. "This is really a fantastic discovery for basic biology research," said TIME science writer Christine Gorman. "But it's way too early to speculate over whether this will have any impact on treating memory or brain disease. We should be satisfied for now to know that there's so much more to the brain than we thought." Gorman points out that the benefit of new findings in brain research "is often not the thing you thought it was. We're still in the dark about so much of the brain, but anytime you can raise the veil a little bit, it's exciting."