The mystery of humans’ evolved capability for adults to grow new brain cells

This 2016 German review discussed the evolution of human adult neurogenesis:

“Mammalian adult hippocampal neurogenesis is a trait shaped by evolutionary forces that have contributed to the advantages in natural selection that are associated with the mammalian dentate gyrus. Adult hippocampal neurogenesis in mammals originates from an ectopic precursor cell population that resides in a defined stem-cell niche detached from the ventricular wall.

Neurogenesis in the adult olfactory bulb generates a diverse range of interneurons, and is involved in the processing of sensory input. In contrast, adult hippocampal neurogenesis produces only one type of excitatory principal neuron and plays a role in flexible memory formation.

A surplus of new neurons is generated first from which only a subset survives. And it is exactly these new neuronal nodes that, at least for a transient period, are the carriers of synaptic plasticity.

For a number of weeks after they were born, the new neurons have a lower threshold for long-term potentiation. This directs the action to the new cells and results in a bias toward the most plastic cells in the local circuitry.

It is a highly polygenic trait, and numerous genes have already been identified to ultimately have essentially identical effects on net neurogenesis.

Adult neurogenesis is also an individualizing trait. Even before an identical genetic background, subtle individual differences in starting conditions and differential behavioral trajectories result in an increase in phenotypic variation with time.”

The author continued the penultimate paragraph above to pose a question about adult neurogenesis that’s incompletely answered by evolutionary biology theory and evidence todate:

“How genetic variation in single genes (or many genes) would be able to exert a phenotypic change in neurogenesis that can provide a large enough advantage to be selected for.”


The development of new brain cells throughout our lives helps us continually adapt and learn. The “increase in phenotypic variation with time” helps us maintain the unique individual that each of us is.

The review emphasized to me how “individual differences” should neither be viewed as a mystery nor explained away nor treated as an etiological factor as researchers often do. Focusing on what caused the differences may provide clearer information.

http://cshperspectives.cshlp.org/content/8/2/a018986.full “Adult Neurogenesis: An Evolutionary Perspective”

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