"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."