New neurons for old brainsGerman Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases
It is a long-established fact that physical and mental activity can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
But it is far from clear why this is so and how this knowledge can be used to develop more targeted methods of prevention and treatment. Researchers now know that even in the adult organism physical and mental activity can stimulate the formation of new nerve cells in the brain. This takes place in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that plays a central role in memory formation and is severely affected by dementia. One of the pioneers in the field of “adult neurogenesis” is the neuroscientist Professor Gerd Kempermann, who is affiliated with both the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD) and the Dresden partner centre of the DZNE. Kempermann has examined in mice how the formation of new neurons in the brain is controlled not only by genes but also by behaviour. After all, neurogenesis is based on a complex biology, and research into the function of new neurons and their integration into the existing neural network of the brain is still in its infancy. “We are investigating how new neurons are integrated into brain function and how a disruption of adult neurogenesis contributes to neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive problems in old age,” explains Kempermann. Only recently has it become clear what purpose new neurons serve in the brain: Kempermann and his colleagues are convinced that they help people to deal flexibly with new information and to integrate it into familiar contexts. In the case of dementia and depression, this function is often disrupted at an early stage. Kempermann’s group is using tests based on virtual realities in order to examine this special flexibility in humans. “Our goal is to learn how we can stimulate neurogenesis in a targeted fashion in order to prevent the disturbances in brain function that are caused by neurodegenerative diseases. We also hope to compensate for these malfunctions and, in the best-case scenario, cure them over the long term.”
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