How New Brain Cells Regenerate

Brain Basics: The Life and Death of a Neuron | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

How New Brain Cells Regenerate

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The Architecture of the Neuron
Hope Through Research


Until recently, most neuroscientists thought we were born with all the neurons we were ever going to have.

As children we might produce some new neurons to help build the pathways — called neural circuits — that act as information highways between different areas of the brain.

But scientists believed that once a neural circuit was in place, adding any new neurons would disrupt the flow of information and disable the brain’s communication system.

In 1962, scientist Joseph Altman challenged this belief when he saw evidence of neurogenesis (the birth of neurons) in a region of the adult rat brain called the hippocampus.

He later reported that newborn neurons migrated from their birthplace in the hippocampus to other parts of the brain.

In 1979, another scientist, Michael Kaplan, confirmed Altman’s findings in the rat brain, and in 1983 he found neural precursor cells in the forebrain of an adult monkey.

These discoveries about neurogenesis in the adult brain were surprising to other researchers who didn’t think they could be true in humans.

But in the early 1980s, a scientist trying to understand how birds learn to sing suggested that neuroscientists look again at neurogenesis in the adult brain and begin to see how it might make sense.

In a series of experiments, Fernando Nottebohm and his research team showed that the numbers of neurons in the forebrains of male canaries dramatically increased during the mating season. This was the same time in which the birds had to learn new songs to attract females.

Why did these bird brains add neurons at such a critical time in learning? Nottebohm believed it was because fresh neurons helped store new song patterns within the neural circuits of the forebrain, the area of the brain that controls complex behaviors. These new neurons made learning possible. If birds made new neurons to help them remember and learn, Nottebohm thought the brains of mammals might too.

Other scientists believed these findings could not apply to mammals, but Elizabeth Gould later found evidence of newborn neurons in a distinct area of the brain in monkeys, and Fred Gage and Peter Eriksson showed that the adult human brain produced new neurons in a similar area.

For some neuroscientists, neurogenesis in the adult brain is still an unproven theory. But others think the evidence offers intriguing possibilities about the role of adult-generated neurons in learning and memory.


The Architecture of the Neuron

The central nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord) is made up of two basic types of cells: neurons (1) and glia (4) & (6). Glia outnumber neurons in some parts of the brain, but neurons are the key players in the brain.

Neurons are information messengers. They use electrical impulses and chemical signals to transmit information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Everything we think and feel and do would be impossible without the work of neurons and their support cells, the glial cells called astrocytes (4) and oligodendrocytes (6).

Neurons have three basic parts: a cell body and two extensions called an axon (5) and a dendrite (3). Within the cell body is a nucleus (2), which controls the cell’s activities and contains the cell’s genetic material.

The axon looks a long tail and transmits messages from the cell. Dendrites look the branches of a tree and receive messages for the cell.

Neurons communicate with each other by sending chemicals, called neurotransmitters, across a tiny space, called a synapse, between the axons and dendrites of adjacent neurons.

The architecture of the neuron.

There are three classes of neurons:

  1. Sensory neurons carry information from the sense organs (such as the eyes and ears) to the brain.
  2. Motor neurons control voluntary muscle activity such as speaking and carry messages from nerve cells in the brain to the muscles.
  3. All the other neurons are called interneurons.

Scientists think that neurons are the most diverse kind of cell in the body. Within these three classes of neurons are hundreds of different types, each with specific message-carrying abilities.

How these neurons communicate with each other by making connections is what makes each of us unique in how we think, and feel, and act.


The extent to which new neurons are generated in the brain is a controversial subject among neuroscientists. Although the majority of neurons are already present in our brains by the time we are born, there is evidence to support that neurogenesis (the scientific word for the birth of neurons) is a lifelong process.

Neurons are born in areas of the brain that are rich in concentrations of neural precursor cells (also called neural stem cells). These cells have the potential to generate most, if not all, of the different types of neurons and glia found in the brain.

Neuroscientists have observed how neural precursor cells behave in the laboratory. Although this may not be exactly how these cells behave when they are in the brain, it gives us information about how they could be behaving when they are in the brain’s environment.

The science of stem cells is still very new, and could change with additional discoveries, but researchers have learned enough to be able to describe how neural stem cells generate the other cells of the brain. They call it a stem cell’s lineage and it is similar in principle to a family tree.

Neural stem cells increase by dividing in two and producing either two new stem cells, or two early progenitor cells, or one of each.

When a stem cell divides to produce another stem cell, it is said to self-renew. This new cell has the potential to make more stem cells.

When a stem cell divides to produce an early progenitor cell, it is said to differentiate. Differentiation means that the new cell is more specialized in form and function. An early progenitor cell does not have the potential of a stem cell to make many different types of cells. It can only make cells in its particular lineage.

Early progenitor cells can self-renew or go in either of two ways. One type will give rise to astrocytes. The other type will ultimately produce neurons or oligodendrocytes.


Once a neuron is born it has to travel to the place in the brain where it will do its work.

How does a neuron know where to go? What helps it get there?

Scientists have seen that neurons use at least two different methods to travel:

  1. Some neurons migrate by following the long fibers of cells called radial glia. These fibers extend from the inner layers to the outer layers of the brain. Neurons glide along the fibers until they reach their destination.
  2. Neurons also travel by using chemical signals. Scientists have found special molecules on the surface of neurons — adhesion molecules — that bind with similar molecules on nearby glial cells or nerve axons. These chemical signals guide the neuron to its final location.

Not all neurons are successful in their journey. Scientists think that only a third reach their destination. Some cells die during the process of neuronal development.

Some neurons survive the trip, but end up where they shouldn’t be. Mutations in the genes that control migration create areas of misplaced or oddly formed neurons that can cause disorders such as childhood epilepsy. Some researchers suspect that schizophrenia and the learning disorder dyslexia are partly the result of misguided neurons.

Some neurons migrate by riding along extensions (radial glia) until they reach their final destinations.


Once a neuron reaches its destination, it has to settle in to work. This final step of differentiation is the least well-understood part of neurogenesis.

Neurons are responsible for the transport and uptake of neurotransmitters — chemicals that relay information between brain cells.

Depending on its location, a neuron can perform the job of a sensory neuron, a motor neuron, or an interneuron, sending and receiving specific neurotransmitters.

In the developing brain, a neuron depends on molecular signals from other cells, such as astrocytes, to determine its shape and location, the kind of transmitter it produces, and to which other neurons it will connect. These freshly born cells establish neural circuits — or information pathways connecting neuron to neuron — that will be in place throughout adulthood.

But in the adult brain, neural circuits are already developed and neurons must find a way to fit in. As a new neuron settles in, it starts to look surrounding cells. It develops an axon and dendrites and begins to communicate with its neighbors.

Stem cells differentiate to produce different types of nerve cells.


Although neurons are the longest living cells in the body, large numbers of them die during migration and differentiation.

The lives of some neurons can take abnormal turns. Some diseases of the brain are the result of the unnatural deaths of neurons.

— In Parkinson’s disease, neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine die off in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that controls body movements. This causes difficulty initiating movement.

— In Huntington’s disease, a genetic mutation causes over-production of a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which kills neurons in the basal ganglia. As a result, people twist and writhe uncontrollably.

— In Alzheimer’s disease, unusual proteins build up in and around neurons in the neocortex and hippocampus, parts of the brain that control memory. When these neurons die, people lose their capacity to remember and their ability to do everyday tasks. Physical damage to the brain and other parts of the central nervous system can also kill or disable neurons.

— Blows to the brain, or the damage caused by a stroke, can kill neurons outright or slowly starve them of the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive.

— Spinal cord injury can disrupt communication between the brain and muscles when neurons lose their connection to axons located below the site of injury. These neurons may still live, but they lose their ability to communicate.

One method of cell death results from the release of excess glutamate. Macrophages (green) eat dying neurons in order to clear debris.

Hope Through Research

Scientists hope that by understanding more about the life and death of neurons they can develop new treatments, and possibly even cures, for brain diseases and disorders that affect the lives of millions of Americans.

The most current research suggests that neural stem cells can generate many, if not all, of the different types of neurons found in the brain and the nervous system. Learning how to manipulate these stem cells in the laboratory into specific types of neurons could produce a fresh supply of brain cells to replace those that have died or been damaged.

Therapies could also be created to take advantage of growth factors and other signaling mechanisms inside the brain that tell precursor cells to make new neurons. This would make it possible to repair, reshape, and renew the brain from within.

For information on other neurological disorders or research programs funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, contact the Institute's Brain Resources and Information Network (BRAIN) at:

BRAINP.O. Box 5801Bethesda, MD 20824(800) 352-9424


How to Grow New Brain Cells and Make Yourself Smarter

How New Brain Cells Regenerate

Growing new brain cells—or neurogenesis–is possible for adults.

For a long time the established dogma was that the adult brain couldn’t generate any new brain cells. That is, it was believed that you were born with a certain amount of brain cells, and that was it. And since you naturally lose brain cells as you age, after age 25 it was all downhill for your brain function.

The good news is that scientists have now discovered that you can grow new brain cells throughout your entire life. The process is called neurogenesis. Specifically, new brain cells–which are called neurons–grow in the hippocampus.

This is the region of the brain that is responsible for learning information, storing long-term memories, and regulating emotions. This has many different positive implications.

Here are some of the most important ways in which taking action to encourage neurogenesis can help you:

  • As Dr. Amar Sahay–a neuroscientist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital–explains, developing new brain cells can help enhance cognitive functions. New neurons enhance your ability to learn.
  • Growing new neurons can help you stave off Alzheimer’s.
  • Neurogenesis will help you to keep your memory sharp.
  • The growth of new brain cells can both treat and prevent depression, as well as help to reduce anxiety.

In order to make the most of your brain you need to do the following:

  • Take Care of Your Brain Cells
  • Grow New Brain Cells
  • Keep the New Neurons From Dying

These three points are explained below.

Take Care of Your Brain Cells

Before we get into how to grown new brain cells, it’s important to note that you should take steps to take care of the brain cells you already have. Right now it’s very ly that there are things you’re doing which are damaging your brain cells. These include the following:

  • Leaving Stress Unchecked. Stress can damage brain cells over time. Protect your brain cells by managing stress. Do things such as simplifying, meditating, and prioritizing your to-do list.
  • Not Getting Enough Sleep. To begin with, scientists now believe that sleep “detoxes” the brain, flushing out waste products linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation kills a particular type of brain cell called locus ceruleus (LC) neurons, which play an important role in keeping us alert and awake.
  • Following a Poor Diet. Eating a poor diet that’s loaded with industrial fats, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened treats is shrinking your brain. Data shows that the more junk food a person reports eating, the smaller their hippocampus tends to be.

If you’re doing any of the things above–leading a high-stress life, being sleep deprived, and eating a poor diet–, stop it. Your brain cells will thank you.

How to Grow New Brain Cells

This is where things get good. In a TED Talk, Doctor Sandrine Thuret, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, explains that until the 1990s people thought that adults couldn’t generate new brain cells. But now we know that they do.

Here, then, are 10 ways to grow new brain cells:

  • Eat Blueberries.  Blueberries are blue due to anthocyanin dye, a flavonoid which research has linked to neurogenesis.
  • Indulge in Dark Chocolate. I’ve already encouraged you to eat dark chocolate in my post about longevity, as well as in my post about giving your mood a boost. Well, now it turns out that those delicious morsels of chocolaty goodness will also help you grow new neurons. This is because dark chocolate, blueberries, contains flavonoids.
  • Keep Yourself Engaged. Cognitive stimulation increases hippocampal neurogenesis. What does this mean? It means that you need to keep your brain engaged: learn new skills, interact with other people, travel, try new things, and keep stepping outside of your comfort zone.
  • Eat Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Foods that are rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids — avocados and fatty fish tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines —promote the growth of neurons. You can also opt for flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, chia seeds, and walnuts.
  • Exercise. We can foster new brain cell growth through regular endurance exercise, such as jogging. Here’s how it works: jogging stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5. In turn, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses. If jogging is not your thing, try walking briskly.
  • Eat Turmeric. Not only does the yellow spice turmeric help with neurogenesis, but a study conducted relatively recently found that turmeric may contribute to the regeneration of a ‘damaged brain’ and help with neurological disorders. One thing you can try is to add a teaspoon of turmeric to your morning or afternoon smoothie.
  • Have Sex. Having frequent sex can help you to repopulate your brain (pardon the pun).
  • Drink Green Tea. Specifically, the compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) found in green tea is the element which has been linked to the growth of new brain cells.
  • Expose Yourself to Sunlight. When your body is exposed to natural sunlight, it produces Vitamin D. Vitamin D increases levels of BDNF in the brain — as was previously mentioned, BDNF promotes neurogenesis.
  • Intermittent Fasting. Dr. Thuret explains that she eats every other day. On the days in which she fasts she’ll grab a big latte and then maybe later an apple and a cereal bar. The other days she eats normally. She explains that when you fast intermittently you’re mildly stressing your brain, and it’s ly that this leads to an increase in neurons so you can search for food more efficiently.

As you can see from the list above, there are lots of simple things you can do to grown new brain cells. Once you’ve grown new brain cells, you need to maintain them. You’ll discover how in the next section of this blog post.

How to Keep the New Brain Cells Alive

Everything mentioned in the section above will help you to grow new brain cells. But growing new neurons is not enough. You also have to keep the new neurons alive.

Studies show that new neurons are kept alive by learning that requires effort; this means a process that involves concentration in the present moment over an extended period of time.


I, on the one hand, feel very optimistic about the fact that I can grow new brain cells. I hope you do too. And now I’m going to have some green tea with two squares of dark chocolate, and then spend some time on my chess game. After all, I have to put my new brain cells to good use.


Do Brain Cells Regenerate? Yes, and You Can Help

How New Brain Cells Regenerate

Many mental health conditions are linked to an impaired ability to regenerate brain cells. Learn how you can stimulate cell growth to boost brain health.

In the last 20 years, there’s been a complete reversal in one fundamental concept about the human brain.

Previously, it was believed that new brain cells were no longer created once you reached adulthood.

This is a grim thought, since so many things, including simply getting older, kill brain cells.

But with the development of more sophisticated tools, the depth and breadth of our knowledge of the brain has skyrocketed.

And one of the most exciting and important recent discoveries is that brain cells DO regenerate throughout your entire life. 

We now know that neurogenesis — the formation of new brain cells — is not only possible, it happens every day.

This is not simply a fascinating piece of information, it’s news you can use.

Researchers have identified ways you can actively promote the growth of new brain cells.

How to Boost Brain Cell Regeneration

The brain can make thousands of new neurons every day and maintains this ability well into old age. 

By the time you turn 50, you will have replaced the original neurons in your hippocampus, your brain’s “memory center,” with all new neurons! 

Initially, adult neurogenesis was found to occur in only two regions of the brain: the hippocampus and the striatum. 

But now there’s evidence that new brain cells can also grow in the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the olfactory bulb, and possibly the cerebral cortex. 

It seems ly that neurogenesis will be found in other areas of the brain as research continues.

» The saying “use it or lose it” applies to the brain as it does to muscles. Any brain cells or neural connections that are not regularly used are allowed to wither and die due to a process called synaptic pruning.

It has been called “Miracle-Gro” for the brain because it helps the brain grow and flourish.

It encourages the growth of new brain cells and helps keep existing brain cells healthy via a variety of mechanisms. 

BDNF has many benefits:

  • increases brain plasticity
  • suppresses damaging brain inflammation
  • offsets the negative effects of stress on the brain
  • protects the brain against degenerative diseases. 

Nerve growth factor (NGF) was the first growth factor to be discovered.

NGF heals and protects nerve cells, and stimulates the growth of new ones in both the brain and the nervous system.

When Neurogenesis Is Critical

Virtually everyone can benefit from having more brain cells, but there are some situations where neurogenesis is critical.

Living with a high level of stress leads to a decrease in BDNF and an increase in cognitive impairment, making brain cell regeneration especially important. 

Increasing brain cell production in seniors can help counteract age-related cognitive decline. 

Certain medications restrict new neuron growth, but actively promoting neurogenesis may offset their effects.

For example, antibiotics don’t just kill bacteria, they also halt the production of new brain cells. 

Some cancer patients have been known to get depressed even after they’ve been pronounced cured.

Apparently, the drugs that stop their cancer cells from growing also stop the formation of new neurons, triggering their depression.

Antidepressants Prozac are believed to alleviate depression by increasing the neurotransmitter serotonin.

But there’s evidence that antidepressants increase brain cell growth in the hippocampus as well.

So when these drugs work to alleviate depression, it may be due to this unintended affect. 

Researchers have discovered some unexpected ways that diet affects brain cell regeneration. 

It’s not just what you eat, but how much you eat and how often you eat that matters as well.

Calorie Restriction

Eating fewer calories and/or eating less frequently can help grow new brain cells. 

Calorie restriction has been linked to increased neurogenesis.

This seems to work by decreasing inflammation and increasing BDNF. 

Intermittent Fasting

Another strategy for increasing neurogenesis with food is to practice intermittent fasting.

This involves increasing the time between meals, up to 16 hours.

It’s not as hard as it sounds since you can be asleep half of those hours. 

So, having dinner at 6:00 pm and breakfast the next day at 10:00 am qualifies as intermittent fasting.

Harder-to-Chew Foods

Strangely, eating foods you must chew vigorously increases brain cell formation.

This makes a crunchy salad better for brain cell growth than juicing or making a smoothie with those same vegetables. 

And while healthy fats are essential for brain health, a diet containing excessive amounts of saturated fat can slow down neurogenesis. 

Foods and Supplements That Encourage Brain Cell Growth

Certain nutrients actually have neurogenerative properties.

Most of these nutrients can be obtained directly from food and are also available as supplements.

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 essential fatty acids promote the production of new neurons. 

Omega-3 fats are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish.

You can also get them from fish oil or krill oil supplements.

Flavonoids are highly potent antioxidants that occur naturally in some plant foods.

The flavonoids found in blueberries, cocoa, and green tea are particularly effective at stimulating the formation of new brain cells. 


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Curcumin is the main bioactive component in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).

It provides many brain benefits, including increasing BDNF and stimulating neurogenesis in the hippocampus.


Resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, increases brain cell growth, but alcohol decreases it.

This inspired neuroscience researcher Sandrine Thuret, PhD, to call red wine a “neurogenesis neutral” drink. 

So you may be better off getting resveratrol from non-alcoholic sources such as grapes, pistachios, peanuts, peanut butter, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, and chocolate.

Skip resveratrol supplements which don’t work very well.

They have a low bioavailability and a short half-life once consumed.

Olive Oil

Olive oil may encourage the growth of brain cells by boosting levels of both brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor. 

For maximum brain cell regeneration, use a high-quality, extra virgin olive oil.


Apigenin is a phenolic compound that promotes neurogenesis. 

It is found in many fruits and vegetables, but its best food sources are parsley, celery, and chamomile tea. 

While not common, apigenin supplements are available.


L-theanine is a compound found almost exclusively in all true teas (Camellia sinensis).

It’s mostly associated with green tea, but is found in comparable amounts in black, white, and oolong teas as well.

L-theanine is highly regarded for its unique ability to induce a desirable state of “relaxed focus.”

It increases BDNF and NGF to stimulate the growth of new neurons. 

You can get l-theanine from drinking tea, or by taking an l-theanine supplement.


Citicoline, a precursor of choline, is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body.

It protects and repairs existing brain cells and promotes the growth of new ones. 

It’s found mainly in foods that few find appealing.

So unless you’re up for eating liver or brain, you’ll probably want to take a citicoline supplement instead.

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a culinary delicacy that tastes shrimp or lobster.

So far, approximately 70 bioactive compounds have been identified in lion’s mane, including two groups of compounds not found anywhere else — the hericenones and the erinacines. 

These unique compounds encourage the formation of nerve growth factor. 

Lion’s mane mushrooms are not readily available, so most people ingest lion’s mane as a supplement.

Gotu Kola

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is an herb that activates the release of BDNF and NGF.

It also contains other compounds that promote the growth of neurons. 

Gotu kola is both an important traditional herbal remedy and a versatile cooking ingredient in Asian countries.

But in most Western countries, it’s available only as a supplement.


And finally, certain nutritional deficiencies can impair new brain cell growth.

Inadequate intake of vitamin A, B vitamins (thiamine and folate), and zinc can decrease the production of new brain cells and make them less ly to survive.

But supplementation with a high-quality multivitamin can help boost your brain cell production. 

Related —
Top Brain Exercises to Keep You Sharp (in-depth guide)

But, you don’t have to memorize the 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in London to grow your hippocampus.

Any time you challenge your brain with something that’s new and complex, it helps build your brain in two ways.

It stimulates the formation of new brain cells, and it ensures that new ones stick around. 

The saying “use it or lose it” applies to the brain as it does to muscles. 

Any brain cells or neural connections that are not regularly used are allowed to wither and die due to a process called synaptic pruning.

Stimulate Neurogenesis With Physical Exercise

Any kind of physical exercise is good for your brain and mental health, but, so far, the evidence points to sustained, moderate-intensity, aerobic exercise as the best for growing new brain cells. 

This includes exercises jogging, biking, hiking, power walking, or swimming. 

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, is a leading authority on how exercise impacts the brain.

Dr. Ratey recommends performing aerobic exercise according to this routine for maximum cognitive benefits:

  • Sprint for 30 to 40 seconds.
  • Exercise at a gentle pace for 5 minutes.
  • Repeat for a total of 5 cycles.

If possible, exercise outdoors.

Researchers have noted a strong correlation between the production of BDNF and sunlight. 

BDNF levels in humans vary widely with the seasons, with the highest concentrations occurring in spring and summer and the lowest during fall and winter.

If aerobic exercise sounds too demanding, opt for a less strenuous alternative.

Mind-body exercises, such as yoga, can increase new brain cell production in the hippocampus.

These type of exercises also reduce stress, a known disruptor of brain cell regeneration. 

How Sleep Affects Brain Cell Regeneration

Getting adequate quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do for the health of your brain and your mental wellness.

Sleep works by a number of mechanisms to promote brain health.

While you sleep, your brain is busy:

  • clearing away toxins and debris
  • repairing and reorganizing itself

Chronic lack of sleep can stop the formation of brain cells, but fortunately, the occasional sleepless night seems to have little effect on brain cell regeneration. 

But when you have an occasional bad night, be sure to get some exercise the following day.

Exercise offsets the negative effects of poor sleep on BDNF levels. 

Until recently, it was believed that growing new brain cells was impossible once you reached adulthood.

But it’s now known that the brain constantly regenerates its supply of brain cells and that there is much that you can do to stimulate the process.

While literally everyone can benefit from growing more brain cells, it is of particular importance if you have certain psychiatric or neurological conditions.

Every day, give both your brain and body a good workout, get adequate sleep, and eat foods that promote growth factors BDNF and NGF.

Additionally, you can experiment with various supplements that promote brain cell regeneration.


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