Recent Developments in Neurophysiology Friday 6th April 2018
Dr Peter May comments on a new study which has important probable implications for brain plasticity and the folly of the immutability arguments around sexual 'orientation'.
It is reported on the front page of the Times this morning that a new study, examining the brains of 28 cognitively healthy people aged 14-79 yrs, who had died suddenly, showed thousands of newly formed neurons. A recent paper in Nature had estimated that that there were no new cells made in adulthood. This new report from Columbia University and published in Cell Stem Cell shows that neurogenesis proliferates even in old age.
It has been shown in mice that new neurons are necessary for learning and coping with stress. Neurogenesis is known to be supported by lifestyle changes, such as social interaction and learning.
In a Leading Article (p.29) subtitled ‘Scientists suggest that older people can grow as many new brain cell as the young,’ it notes that modern science remains at an early stage in understanding the most complex of organs, the brain. The average brain contains around 90 billion neurons that make some 100 trillion synapses (connections). “The firing of neurons produces the stuff of thought.” The brain expands in mass several times over between birth and adulthood but this is due to the functioning of cells rather than an increase in their numbers. A normal child effortlessly becomes fluent in complex grammatical constructions by the age of three or four but adults find it hard to learn a new language. Whether earning degrees while young or finishing cryptic crosswords when old, the article concludes that “the life of the mind remains ever open”.
In other words, it is these synapse connections rather than the growth of new cells, which effect our thinking and enable us to learn, even if this is a slow and difficult process. In their paper on Conversion Therapy sent to General Synod in Summer 2017, Prof. Michael King and Prof. Robert Song stated, “Current scientific understandings of neural plasticity are still very much in their infancy, and claims about the neural plasticity of sexual orientation are at present entirely speculative.” It may be still in its infancy but this current study offers some objective findings about the brain’s capacity to grow and develop its learning potential, even in later life.
Peter May 6.4.18
 Foster, Victoria, The Times Older People Can Still Produce New Brain Cells, Study Shows 5th April 2018 https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2018/04/05/older-people-can-still-produce-new-brain-cells-new-study-shows/#4e02d15afa0b