Use it or lose it: the interplay of new brain cells, age, and activity

This 2015 German review was of aging and activity in the context of adult neurogenesis:

“Adult neurogenesis might be of profound functional significance because it occurs at a strategic bottleneck location in the hippocampus.


Age-dependent changes essentially reflect a unidirectional development in that everything builds on what has occurred before. In this sense, aging can also be seen as continued or lifelong development. This idea has limitations but is instructive with regard to adult neurogenesis, because adult neurogenesis is neuronal development under the conditions of the adult brain.

The age-related alterations of adult neurogenesis themselves have quantitative and qualitative components. So far, most research has focused on the quantitative aspects. But there can be little doubt that qualitative changes do not simply follow quantitative changes (e.g., in cell or synapse numbers), but emerge on a systems level and above when an organism ages. With respect to adult neurogenesis, only one multilevel experiment including morphology and behavior has been conducted, and, even in that study, only three time points were investigated.

In old age, adult neurogenesis occurs at only a small fraction of the level in early adulthood. The decline does not seem to be ‘regulated’ but rather the by-product of many age-related changes of other sorts.


From a behavioral level down to a synaptic level, activity increases adult neurogenesis. This regulation does not seem to occur in an all-or-nothing fashion but rather influences different stages of neuronal development differently. Both cell proliferation and survival are influenced by or even depend on activity.

The effects of exercise and environmental enrichment are additive, which indicates that increasing the potential for neurogenesis is sufficient to increase the actual use of the recruitable cells in the case of cognitive stimulation. Physical activity would not by itself provide specific hippocampus-relevant stimuli that induce net neurogenesis but be associated with a greater chance to encounter specific relevant stimuli.


Adult hippocampal neurogenesis might contribute to a structural or neural reserve that if appropriately trained early in life might provide a compensatory buffer of brain plasticity in the face of increasing neurodegeneration or nonpathological age-related functional losses. There is still only limited information on the activity-dependent parameters that help to prevent the age-dependent decrease in adult neurogenesis and maintain cellular plasticity.

The big question is what the functional contribution of so few new neurons over so long periods can be. Any comprehensive concept has to bring together the acute functional contributions of newly generated, highly plastic neurons and the more-or-less lasting changes they introduce to the network.”

I’ve quoted quite a lot, but there are more details that await your reading. A few items from the study referenced in the first paragraph above:

“The hippocampus represents a bottleneck in processing..adult hippocampal neurogenesis occurs at exactly the narrowest spot.

We have derived the theory that the function of adult hippocampal neurogenesis is to enable the brain to accommodate continued bouts of novelty..a mechanism for preparing the hippocampus for processing greater levels of complexity.”


The role of the hippocampus in emotion was ignored as it so often is. The way to address many of the gaps mentioned by the author may be to Advance science by including emotion in research.

For example, from the author’s The mystery of humans’ evolved capability for adults to grow new brain cells:

“Adult neurogenesis is already effective early in life, actually very well before true adulthood, and is at very high levels when sexual maturity has been reached. Behavioral advantages associated with adult neurogenesis must be relevant during the reproductive period.”

When human studies are designed to research how “behavioral advantages associated with adult neurogenesis must be relevant” what purpose does it serve to exclude emotional content?

http://cshperspectives.cshlp.org/content/7/11/a018929.full “Activity Dependency and Aging in the Regulation of Adult Neurogenesis”

Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum

This 2016 US human study found:

“A link between existing data on the anatomical and physiological characteristics of striatal regions and psychological functions.

Because we did not limit our metaanalysis to studies that specifically targeted striatal function, our results extend previous knowledge of the involvement of the striatum in reward-related decision-making tasks, and provide a detailed functional map of regional specialization for diverse psychological functions, some of which are sometimes thought of as being the exclusive domain of the PFC [prefrontal cortex].”

The analysis led to dividing the striatum into five segments:

Ventral striatum (VS):

  • Stimulus Value
  • Terms such as “reward,” “losses,” and “craving”
  • The most representative study reported that monetary and social rewards activate overlapping regions within the VS.
  • Together with the above finding of a reliable coactivation with OFC [orbitofrontal cortex] and ventromedial PFC, this finding suggests a broad involvement of this area in representing stimulus value and related stimulus-driven motivational states.

Anterior caudate (Ca) Nucleus:

  • Incentive Behavior
  • Terms such as “grasping,” “reaching,” and “reinforcement”
  • The most representative study reported a stronger blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response in this region during trials in which participants had a chance of winning or losing money in a card guessing game, in comparison to trials where participants merely received feedback about the accuracy of their guess.
  • This result suggests a role in evaluating the value of different actions, contrasting with the above role of the VS in evaluating the value of stimuli.

Posterior putamen (Pp):

  • Sensorimotor Processes
  • Terms such as “foot,” “noxious,” and “taste”
  • The most representative study reported activation of this region in response to painful stimulation at the back of the left hand and foot of participants. Anatomically, the most reliable and specific coactivation is with sensorimotor cortices, and the posterior and midinsula and operculum (secondary somatosensory cortex SII) in particular, some parts of which are specifically associated with pain.
  • Together, these findings suggest a broad involvement of this area in sensorimotor functions, including aspects of their affective qualities.

Anterior putamen (Pa):

  • Social- and Language-Related Functions
  • Terms such as “read,” “vocal,” and “empathic”
  • The most representative study partially supports a role of this area in social- and language-related functions; it reported a stronger activation of the Pa in experienced singers, but not when novices were singing.
  • It is coactivated with frontal areas anterior to the ones coactivated with the Pp, demonstrating topography in frontostriatal associations. These anterior regions have been implicated in language processes.

Posterior caudate (Cp) Nucleus:

  • Executive Functions
  • Terms such as “causality,” “rehearsal,” and “arithmetic”
  • The representative study reported this region to be part of a network that included dorsolateral PFC and ACC, which supported inhibitory control and task set-shifting.
  • These results suggest a broad, and previously underappreciated, role for the Cp in cognitive control.

The authors presented comparisons of the above striatal segments with other analyses of striatal zones.


One of the coauthors was the lead researcher of the 2015 Advance science by including emotion in research. The current study similarly used a coactivation view rather than a connectivity paradigm of:

“Inferring striatal function indirectly via psychological functions of connected cortical regions.”

Another of the coauthors was a developer of the system used by the current study and by The function of the dorsal ACC is to monitor pain in survival contexts, and he provided feedback to those authors regarding proper use of the system.


The researchers’ “unbiased, data-driven approach” had to work around the cortical biases evident in many of the 5,809 human imaging studies analyzed. The authors referred to the biases in statements such as:

“The majority of studies investigating these psychological functions report activity preferentially in cortical areas, except for studies investigating reward-related and motor functions.”

The methods and results of research with cortical biases influenced the study’s use of:

“Word frequencies of psychological terms in the full text of studies, rather than a detailed analysis of psychological tasks and statistical contrasts.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/7/1907.full “Regional specialization within the human striatum for diverse psychological functions”

How brains mature during critical periods

This 2015 German rodent study found:

“Once silent synapses are consolidated in any neural circuit, initial experience-dependent functional optimization and critical periods end.

Silent synapses are thought to be immature, still-developing excitatory synapses.”

The number of silent synapses related to visual processing was measured at ~50% at eye opening. Visual experience reduced this to 5% or less by adulthood in the study’s control group. Removing a protein in the subjects’ hippocampus silenced the synapses back up to ~50%, even in adults.

Critical periods are:

“Characterized by the absolute requirement for experience in a restricted time window for neural network optimization.

Although some functions can be substantially ameliorated after the CP [critical period], they are rarely optimally restored.”

Two human studies were cited on critical periods in second-language and musical skills development, Sensitive periods in human development: Evidence from musical training (not freely available).

The researchers generalized their findings as:

“Experience-dependent unsilencing of silent synapses constitutes an important general maturational process during CPs of cortical development of different functional domains and suggest an interplay with inhibitory circuits in regulating plasticity.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/24/E3131.full “Progressive maturation of silent synapses governs the duration of a critical period”

Differing characteristics of languages shape people’s brains differently

This 2015 Chinese study found that the differing characteristics of the Chinese and English languages shape people’s brains differently:

“Our results revealed that, although speech processing is largely carried out in the common left hemisphere classical language areas (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) and anterior temporal cortex, speech comprehension across different language groups depends on how these brain regions interact with each other.”

For an informed discussion of the study and related issues, visit http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=17949 and comments.

We can infer from the Would you deprive your infant in order to be in a researcher’s control group? study that this shaping process begins during womb life.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/10/2972.full “Cross-language differences in the brain network subserving intelligible speech”

Would you deprive your infant in order to be in a researcher’s control group?

This 2015 Harvard study found that exposing extremely premature babies to sounds of their mothers enlarged their auditory cortex.

The lead researcher stated:

“Our findings do not prove that the brains of these babies are necessarily better, and we cannot conclude that they will end up with no developmental disabilities.

We don’t know the advantages of having a bigger auditory cortex.”

It’s too bad that studies like this one have to take deprived infants and further deprive them for use as a control group. I suppose it’s possible that the control group members’ development could just be shifted, similar to the Maternal depression and antidepressants epigenetically change infant language development study.

However, given the findings of the Our early experiences are maintained and unconsciously influence us for years, if not indefinitely study, it’s also possible that the last trimester of womb life is a critical period for a child’s auditory cortex. If timely development doesn’t take place within the environment provided by the mother, there may not be another period to fully catch up on growth and learning, even given the effects of neural plasticity.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/10/3152.full “Mother’s voice and heartbeat sounds elicit auditory plasticity in the human brain before full gestation”

Maternal depression and antidepressants epigenetically change infant language development

This 2012 human study found that infant language development accelerated when the depressed mother-to-be took antidepressants:

“Language acquisition reflects a complex interplay between biology and early experience.

Psychotropic medication exposure has been shown to alter neural plasticity and shift sensitive periods in perceptual development.”

Infant language development was delayed when the depressed mother-to-be didn’t take serotonin reuptake inhibitor medication:

“Prenatal depressed maternal mood and (S)SRI exposure were found to shift developmental milestones bidirectionally on infant speech perception tasks.”

Contrast this study with Problematic research with telomere length, which pretended that maternal depression had negligible epigenetic effects on the developing fetus, infant, and child.

http://www.pnas.org/content/109/Supplement_2/17221.full “Prenatal exposure to antidepressants and depressed maternal mood alter trajectory of infant speech perception”

Our early experiences are maintained and unconsciously influence us for years, if not indefinitely

This 2014 Montreal study provided more evidence of critical periods during human development:

“Clearly illustrates that early acquired information is maintained in the brain and that early experiences unconsciously influence neural processing for years, if not indefinitely.

We show that internationally adopted children (aged 9–17 years) from China, exposed exclusively to French since adoption (mean age of adoption, 12.8 mo), maintained neural representations of their birth language despite functionally losing that language and having no conscious recollection of it.

We show that neural representations are not overwritten and suggest a special status for language input obtained during the first year of development.”


YES! GIVE US MORE STUDIES LIKE THIS ONE!

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/48/17314.full “Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language”