Can Adults Grow New Brain Cells?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

“Use it or lose it.”

That’s what we’ve always believed to be true about our brains as we age. And, for the most part, there’s a lot of truth in that advice. But recently there was some new research published that turns this conventional wisdom on its head—and I have to tell you, it’s got me pretty excited.

Let me tell you why…

We Were Wrong About Adult Neurogenesis – We Can Grow New Brain Cells Later In Life

The new research focuses on the process of “neurogenesis,” or the natural ability of the body to create new brain cells (neurons). We’ve always thought this was something the body stopped doing once you reached adulthood – that once you reached your early 20s, your brain had as many cells as it was going to have.

A  2018 study, though, found the exact opposite—that older people with healthy brains have almost the same potential to generate new brain cells as young people.

I won’t go too far into the details, but the research team looked at cadaver brains of various ages, all flash frozen shortly after death. It found evidence of progenitor cells—cells in the brain that are basically “on stand-by” to become full-fledged neurons. Even better, those progenitor cells were discovered in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and comprehension.

In other words, the part of your brain that processes emotions, memories, and new information never truly stops making new brain cells. It has the potential to generate new cells throughout your life. Reinforcing that process could have a huge potential impact on the likelihood you’ll suffer some sort of age-related cognitive decline.

Now, can you see why I’m so jazzed about this?!?

5 Tips for Maximizing Brain Cell Growth

One of the key details in this new research is that neurogenesis potential is highest in people who have the healthiest brains. So, the more you do to help support your brain health throughout your life, the more likely neurogenesis will work for you.

Here are the tips that will work best…

1. Adopt a High Vibrational Lifestyle

Like the health of your heart, the health of your brain depends on your lifestyle. You may not notice the effects your habits have on these organs day in and day out, but over time they add up.

Living a high-vibrational lifestyle means doing all you can to raise the natural vibration of your cells—in this case, your brain cells especially. Vibration is a natural reflection of health because healthy cells vibrate faster than unhealthy cells. 

2. Eat the PAMM Way

For virtually all aspects of health, my number one recommendation is eating an anti-inflammatory diet—specifically the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean diet, or PAMM for short.

PAMM is great for the brain for a couple of reasons.

One, it helps cut down on how much inflammation is in your body. I can’t stress the importance of this enough, given that inflammation is linked with the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. If you have some family history you’re worried about, this is definitely something you want to pay attention to.

Two, PAMM includes a lot of healthy fat, which the brain uses to build and repair cell membranes. Plus, these fats are also used to reinforce connections between cells, and that keeps thinking and memory sharp. In fact, the Mediterranean Diet—which PAMM is based on—has been scientifically shown to improve brain function in older adults.

Much of this benefit can be linked back to two specific kinds of fats in the PAMM diet. Olive oil, a staple of Mediterranean eating, has tremendous antioxidant power and is a great food for slowing the inflammatory process. Eat enough of it, and it can even influence your genetic disposition toward inflammation.

Boost Your Brain Health with Olive Oil

Then there are the omega-3 fats found in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. Omega-3s—especially DHA—are the brain’s preferred building material when it comes to cell maintenance. I think of DHA as pure brain food. The more, the better.

Less is better when it comes to sugar. Although the brain runs on glucose, high blood sugar levels are associated with higher dementia risk. Eat fruit – especially berries, which are full of brain protecting antioxidants, to satisfy your sweet tooth, or indulge in a small piece of dark chocolate – not cookies, cake, muffins, candy, etc.

And, although this may be news you don’t want to hear, alcohol consumption is linked to brain atrophy proportional to the amount of alcohol you drink – the more alcohol you drink on a regular basis, the greater the shrinkage. So keep your drinking to a minimum if staying sharp is your goal.

3. Get Moving!

Is there anything that exercise isn’t good for?

When it comes to brain health, physical activity gets your blood flowing and promotes the production of several neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. More importantly, though, it helps your brain produce the hormone BDHP, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF helps protect existing brain cells and supports the growth of new ones.

4. Invest in a Few Well-Chosen Nutritional Supplements

There are a handful of nutraceuticals that have solid brain health benefits, and adding them to your regular health regimen is a good way to reinforce a healthy diet. My favorites include:

  • Marine oils. These are the most concentrated sources of omega-3s, which you should already be getting a sizable dose of through your diet. For additional support, though, look for products high in DHA (the brain’s favorite food). My favorite is oil derived from squid, and is called Calamarine®. Take 2-3 grams daily.
  • Phosphatidylserine. Like DHA, phosphatidylserine is a fat that helps maintain cell membranes. It also helps keep the cells in your brain connected to each other, which helps with memory and overall cognition. Aim for 100-200 mg daily.
  • Turmeric (curcumin) extract. Much of the science around curcumin and brain health so far has been limited to animal studies, but it suggests that curcumin can support both BDNF production and the connections between brain cells. There is also evidence that it may reduce the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. Plus, it’s a potent anti-inflammatory. Take 250-500 mg daily.
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC). Since this form of L-carnitine can pass through the blood-brain barrier, it’s helpful for making sure brain cells stay well nourished. It also may serve as raw material for the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Take 250-500 mg daily.
  • Resveratrol. A daily dose of resveratrol boosts the ability of blood vessels in your brain to produce nitric oxide. In turn, nitric oxide dilates the vessels, so nutrient-rich blood flows to your brain cells more easily. This is especially important in the tiny vessels that feed the brain. Take 30-200 mg daily.
  • Astaxanthin. There are more than 1,000 peer reviewed studies that show how this antioxidant helps support the body as it ages—including its ability to support neurogenesis. Take 6-12 mg daily.
  • A high-quality multi. All supplement regimens should begin with a good multi, and in this case it’s the B-complex family that’s most essential. B vitamins help support nerve function and the overall integrity of the nervous system. For best results, look for products containing more than the RDA, and consider adding extra B12 (100-200 mcg).
  • CoQ10. CoQ10 is my favorite heart health supplement because it supports cellular energy production. I like it for that in the brain, too, but it’s also a strong antioxidant that can help fight inflammation. Take 100-200 mg daily.

5. Mind Your Mood

Did you know that chronic worry can actually shrink your brain? It’s true. Prolonged exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can reshape the same part of your brain where the researchers found the progenitor cells. (Not to mention the fact that high cortisol levels stoke inflammation, too.)

Keeping your stress response in check—or, at the very least, taking steps to help your body cope with it—is key for protecting your brain. Personally, I’m a HUGE fan of yoga. That’s not your only option, though. You can also get tremendous benefits from meditation, massage, deep breathing, and Earthing, to name a few. Better, a regular stress-management practice will also help you manage anxiety and depression, two conditions that may have a negative effect on neurogenesis.

With their unbounded enthusiasm and unconditional love, pets are also terrific stress reducers. Discover 19 reasons pets are the best!

Make Your Brain a Priority

As more Baby Boomers age into their 70s, I think that delaying the effects of aging on the brain is going to be a top health priority. You can get a leg up on this process by adopting these habits today—and then realize the benefits of neurogenesis further down the road.

I believe in reversing the clock when it comes to aging. In fact, my new lecture that I’m giving across the country focuses on the theme “70 is the new 50!!!”

References and Resources:

  • Bremner JD. Stress and brain atrophy. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2006 Oct; 5(5): 503–512.
  • Mukamal KJ, et al. Alcohol Consumption and Subclinical Findings on Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain in Older Adults. Stroke. 2001;32:1939-1946.
  • Camargo A, et al. Gene expression changes in mononuclear cells in patients with metabolic syndrome after acute intake of phenol-rich virgin olive oil. BMC Genomics, 2010; 11:253.
  • Kim HY, Huang, BX, and Spector AA. Phosphatidylserine in the brain: Metabolism and function. Prog Lipid Res. 2014 Oct; 0: 1–18.
  • Lauritzen L, et al. DHA effects in brain development and function. Nutrients. 2016 Jan; 8(1): 6.
  • Shytle RD, et al. Optimized turmeric extract reduces β-amyloid and phosphorylated tau protein burden in Alzheimer’s transgenic mice. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2012 May; 9(4): 500–506.
  • Szuhany KL, Bugatti M, and Otto MW. A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor. J Psychiatr Res. 2015 Jan;60:56-64.
  • Valls-Pedret C, et al. Mediterranean diet and age-related cognitive decline: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(7):1094-1103.
  • Wrann CD, et al. Exercise induces hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 pathway. Cell Metab. 2013 Nov 5;18(5):649-59.
  • Xia N, Förstermann U and Li H. Resveratrol and endothelial nitric oxide. Molecules. 2014 Oct 9;19(10):16102-21.
  • Xu Y, et al. Curcumin reverses the effects of chronic stress on behavior, the HPA axis, BDNF expression and phosphorylation of CREB. Brain Res. 2006 Nov 29;1122(1):56-64.
  • Yook JS, et al. Astaxanthin supplementation enhances adult hippocampal neurogenesis and spatial memory in mice. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2016 Mar;60(3):589-99.

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Page last updated Dec. 10, 2023.

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