Grow new brain cells

Mice and memory and intermittent fasting—but that's not even the good part. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I read an interesting neurological study recently, about mice and intermittent fasting.

But to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have shared it if I hadn’t dug deeper into what the main author had previously researched—and how she believes there’s some really good news about our brains that we were probably raised to believe was not possible.

Let’s tell the whole story the way I found it. It comes to us from King's College London, where researchers wanted to figure out if intermittent fasting would spur the development of new hippocampal neurons, and thus improve memory performance in lab mice.

Their experiment ran three months and focused on brain genes known as Klotho. Researchers divided the mice into three groups: 

  1. A control group of mice who were fed as they normally had been, 

  2. A calorie-restricted group (CR), that had its daily food intake reduced by 10%, and

  3. An intermittent fasting group (IF), that had its food similarly reduced but was fed only every other day during the study.

In the end, the mice in the “IF” group (#3 above) had "improved long-term memory retention compared to the other groups," according to a university press release. "When the brains of these mice were studied, it was apparent that the Klotho gene was upregulated, and neurogenesis increased compared to those that were on the CR diet."

The study ran in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry.

"Our results demonstrate that Klotho ... plays a central role in adult neurogenesis," said Dr. Sandrine Thuret, who leads the Adult Neurogenesis & Mental Health Laboratory at King's College, "and suggests that 'IF' is an effective means of improving long-term memory retention in humans."

OK, kind of interesting, sure, but these are mice. However, I was prompted to do a bit of “etymologizing” and researching and putting my very non-scientific degrees to work on figuring out what the heck “adult neurogenesis” means.

It turns out that what it means is that something I had been taught and took as settled—and that frankly, I’m pretty sure some classmates and I had a robust debate about in Sister Rose Angela McLellan’s honors biology class at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, Massachusetts—may in fact have been … well, let’s say overtaken by later research.

In short, I’d always understood that the brain was one of the few parts of the body that can't regenerate. 

Not so at all, says Thuret, who prior to doing this mice research gave a TED Talk on the subject called, quite literally: You can grow new brain cells. Here's how.

In fairness to me, and maybe you, and Sister Rose Angela’s class, this is a fairly new science, Thuret makes clear. In fact, she opens her TED Talk by describing how she introduced the subject to a colleague who is a medical doctor, and who had never heard of it.

But by the time you turn 50 years old, Thuret says, your brain has regenerated to the point that all of the original neurons you were born with have been exchanged for newer, "adult-born neurons."

Thus, the context in which this “hey, let’s see how mice do when we only feed them every other day” research was conducted is that researchers are trying to figure out if there are things that people can do to spur their growth and regeneration.

Sure enough, Thuret says, there are natural activities that encourage and discourage neurogenesis, such as:

  • Sleep, sex, and running? More neurogenesis.

  • Sleep deprivation, aging, and stress? Less neurogenesis.

  • Eating flavonoids and Omega-3 fatty acids, for example (think dark chocolate, blueberries, or fatty fish like salmon)? More neurogenesis.

  • Alcohol (sorry, but probably not a surprise)? Less neurogenesis.

Also, specifically, there’s a theory that, "spacing the time between your meals--will increase neurogenesis." Hence the mice study.

The clinical hope here largely has to do with whether adult neurogenesis can help to "prevent the decline associated with aging," as Thuret puts it, "or associated with stress."

But honestly, I just find the whole thing very hopeful—whether it means that small changes in lifestyle (intermittent fasting, a diet change, getting more sleep, going running, or, ahem, other aerobic activities, etc), might help improve memory, why not give a few of them a try?

Call for comments: Belief or disbelief in the study? Experience with intermittent fasting? Something else this makes you think about? Were you also in Sister Rose Angela’s honors biology class, and you’ve just been lurking here and haven’t said hello? Let us know in the comments.

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Thanks for reading, as always. Photo: Pixabay. I wrote about some of this before at Inc.com. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.