From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published March 10, 2010 07:18 PM

Staying Young by Learning

An old proverb states that to stay young is to keep alert and active or: "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."

University of California neurobiologists are providing the first visual evidence that learning promotes brain health — and, therefore, that mental stimulation could limit the debilitating effects of aging on memory and the mind. Using a novel visualization technique they devised to study memory, a research team found that everyday forms of learning animate neuron receptors that help keep brain cells functioning at optimum levels. These receptors are activated by a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic (BDNF) factor, which facilitates the growth and differentiation of the connections, or synapses, responsible for communication among neurons. BDNF is key in the formation of memories.

When we age our brain ages too, or worse yet, can succumb to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other types of dementia. For some it is simple forgetfulness and for others it is an illness.


Scientists are learning a lot about the processes and factors behind the aging of the brain. It appears that the way way we live and the activities we choose, can have a huge effect on what shape our brain ends up in as we age.

The University of California findings confirm a critical relationship between learning and brain growth and point to ways we can amplify that relationship through possible future treatments," says Chen, a graduate researcher in anatomy and neurobiology.

Study results appear in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the week of March 1.

In addition to discovering that brain activity sets off BDNF signaling at the sites where neurons develop synapses, researchers determined that this process is linked to learning related brain rhythms, called theta rhythms, vital to the encoding of new memories.

Theta rhythms occurring in the hippocampus involve numerous neurons firing synchronously at a rate of three to eight times per second. These rhythms have been associated with long-term potentiation, a cellular mechanism underlying learning and memory.

In rodent studies, the team found that both unsupervised learning and artificial application of theta rhythms triggered BDNF signaling at synapse creation sites.

"This relationship has implications for maintaining good brain health," says Gall, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology. "There is evidence that theta rhythms weaken as we age, and our discoveries suggest that this can result in memory impairment. On the other hand, they suggest that staying mentally active as we age can keep neuronal BDNF signaling at a constant rate, which may limit memory and cognitive decline."

You’re never too old to learn something new. Keeping the mind young and looking forward to what each day brings can also reap physical benefits by reducing stress and its negative side effects and warding off depression and invite poor health. The mind can be compared to a plant. If you “water” it through mental activity and challenges, it will grow.

What can you do? You are old and already know too much? Explore hobbies, travel, take classes in an odd subject or be active in your community by helping others. Explore cultural aspects of your community that you never had time to before, such as art galleries, theaters, music venues, or all the things a university campus has to offer.

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