By Giorgia Guglielmi
Every day, the human hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory, creates hundreds of new nerve cells — or so scientists thought. Now, results from a study could upend this long-standing idea. A team of researchers has found that the birth of neurons in this region seems to stop once we become adults.
A few years ago, the group looked at a well-preserved adult brain sample and spotted a few young neurons in several regions, but none in the hippocampus. So they decided to analyse hippocampus samples from dozens of donors, ranging from fetuses to people in their 60s and 70s. They concluded that the number of new hippocampal neurons starts to dwindle after birth and drops to near zero in adulthood. The results1, published in Nature on 7 March, are already raising controversy.
If confirmed, the findings would be a “huge blow” not only to scientists in the field, but also to people with certain brain disorders, says Ludwig Aigner, a neuroscientist at Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. This is because researchers had hoped to harness the brain’s ability to generate new neurons to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, he says.
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