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According to a recent study, using your brain, particularly during adolescence, is an effective way to help brain cells survive, impacting how the brain ultimately functions after puberty. Rutgers neuroscientist Tracey Shors discovered that the newborn brain cells in young rats that were successful at learning survived, while the same brain cells in animals that didn’t master the task died a lot quicker. According to Shors, this study is an important one because it suggests that the massive proliferation of new brain cells is more likely to help young animals leave the protectiveness of their mothers to face the dangers, challenges and opportunities presented by adulthood.
For a number of years, scientists have known that the neurons in adult rats, which are significant but fewer in numbers than during puberty, could be saved with learning. However, they did not know if this would be the case for young rats that produce two to four times more neurons than adult animals.
By examining the hippocampus, which is traditionally associated with the process of learning, after the rats had learned to associate a sound with a motor response, scientists discovered that the new brain cells injected with dye a few weeks earlier were still alive in those that had learned the task earlier, while the cells in those who had failed didn’t survive. It’s not, according to Shors, that learning makes more cells, but that the process of learning keeps new cells alive that are already present at the time of the learning experience. Since the process of producing new brain cells on a cellular level is similar in animals (including humans), it’s critical to ensure that adolescent children learn at optimal levels.
What it’s revealed to Shors is how difficult it is to achieve optimal learning for students. You don’t want the material to be too easy to learn, yet still not too difficult where the student doesn’t learn and just gives up. While scientists can’t measure individual brain cells in humans, this study provides a look at what is happening in the adolescent brain and provides a window into the amazing ability the brain has to reorganize itself and form new neural connections at such a transformational time in our lives. Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are now, who they want to be when they grow up and are at school in a learning environment all day long. The brain has to have a lot of strength to respond to all those experiences.