From Scientific American:
If you watch TV, read magazines or surf the Web, you have probably encountered advertisements urging you to exercise your mind. Various brain fitness programs encourage people to stay mentally limber by giving their brain a daily workout—doing everything from memorizing lists and solving puzzles to estimating the number of trees in Central Park. It sounds a bit gimmicky, but such programs may have a real basis in neurobiology. Recent work, albeit mostly in rats, indicates that learning enhances the survival of new neurons in the adult brain. And the more engaging and challenging the problem, the greater the number of neurons that stick around. These neurons are then presumably available to aid in situations that tax the mind. It seems, then, that a mental workout can buff up the brain, much as physical exercise builds up the body.
The findings may be particularly interesting to intellectual couch potatoes whose brains could benefit from a few cerebral sit-ups. More important, though, the results lend some support to the notion that people who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or who have other forms of dementia might slow their cognitive decline by keeping their minds actively engaged.
It’s a New Neuron!
In the 1990s scientists rocked the field of neurobiology with the startling news that the mature mammalian brain is capable of sprouting new neurons. Biologists had long believed that this talent for neurogenesis was reserved for young, developing minds and was lost with age. But in the early part of the decade Elizabeth Gould, then at the Rockefeller University, demonstrated that new cells arise in the adult brain—particularly in a region called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. Similar reports soon followed in species from mice to marmosets, and by 1998 neuroscientists in the U.S. and Sweden had shown that neurogenesis also occurs in humans [see “New Nerve Cells for the Adult Brain,” by Gerd Kempermann and Fred H. Gage; Scientific American, May 1999].