Neurogenesis: How To Increase Nerve Growth Factor (NGF)
Can the human brain keep expanding and reshaping itself throughout adulthood?
You bet it can.
And some of today’s most exciting neuroscience research is uncovering surprising new ways to promote brain growth that can enhance our minds, moods, and cognitive abilities as long as we live.
The irrefutable evidence of adult neurogenesis, or the brain’s ability to generate new neurons at any age, was a long time coming but is among the most important neuroscientific discoveries.
It has inspired a whole new generation of research that has already led to major advances in cognitive enhancement, including improved memory, mood management, and learning ability, as well as the potential treatment of devastating neurological ailments like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
The Effects of Neurogenesis
Neurons are the specialized nerve impulse transmission cells that serve as the basic working unit of the brain, and neurogenesis is one of the body’s most powerful processes.
The effects that neurogenesis creates are described by the concept of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change, adapt, and rearrange itself.
At the most basic level, neurogenesis is the opposite of its compliment process, cell death, and together they create a state of neural turnover that helps keep the brain active and receptive; new neurons are believed to have a higher potential for plasticity than older, more rigid neurons.
Neurogenesis also enhances the performance of neural networks within the brain, providing the basis for new neural connections. This in turn leads to improved capabilities in virtually all areas of cognition, from improved memory function to the ability to adapt to new environments, adopt new behaviors, and establish new patterns of thinking.
Briefly put, the more neurons the brain has to work with and the fresher those neurons are, the better the brain performs. In terms of cognitive enhancement, neurogenesis is a proven scientific rebuttal to the idea that intelligence and ability are fixed and unchangeable after childhood, and it completely invalidates the idea that brain aging necessarily results in diminished activity and capability.
In terms of treatment and perhaps even prevention of neurological diseases, neurogenesis holds real promise.
A Scientific About-Face That Changed The Way We Understand The Brain
Our current understanding of neurogenesis and all it involves is surprisingly new. In one of history’s most exciting scientific about-faces, the 1990s at last saw the reversal of the long-held idea that neuron growth primarily occurred prenatally and stopped entirely after childhood.
Until only a few decades ago, the adult brain was considered a fixed and unchanging entity with a set number of neurons that could not be replenished.
Because the adult brain was believed to be incapable of growing new neurons, mature brain function was considered a given that could not be improved or expanded, and any damage to existing neurons was believed to be irreparable.
This belief not only denied the possibility of enhancing adult cognitive abilities, it implied a bleak progress to inevitable age-related mental decline and set a grim prognosis for victims of stroke, neurological disease, or anyone who suffered neurological damage of any kind.
In 1962, American neurobiologist Joseph Altman discovered that the adult brain is capable of creating new neurons, but his findings were largely disregarded. Animal and bird studies conducted in the 1970s supported Altman’s findings, but papers published in the 1980s by respected neurobiologist Paslo Rakic convinced much of the scientific community that adult neurogenesis was limited to lower order animals and did not apply to the human brain.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when a series of groundbreaking studies by Peter Eriksson, Fred Gage, and Elizabeth Gould showed concrete evidence of neurogenesis in the hippocampal region of the adult human brain, that the concept of adult brain growth was at last accepted as a scientific reality.
Growing New Neurons in Adulthood
It’s now generally accepted that adult neurogenesis takes place in two specific areas of the brain. New neuron growth occurs in the dentate gyrus, a substructure within the hippocampus, and in the subventricular zone, which is located within the walls of the lateral ventricle in the forebrain.
New neurons are produced by the division of neural precursor cells, sometimes referred to as neural stem cells. These early stage cells have the potential to become either neurons or support cells.
The exact stimulation that makes neural precursor cells become neurons is still being studied, but the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) established widespread acceptance that neurotrophins, proteins secreted by support cells called astrocytes, are a primary factor in encouraging precursor cells to proliferate and mature into neurons.
What is Nerve Growth Factor?
Nerve Growth Factor was the first neurotrophin to be isolated and studied, and its discovery has opened the door to new understanding of neurogenesis.
NGF was first identified by Italian scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine for her research.
NGF has been extensively studied and it is now known to play a crucial role in both encouraging neurogenesis and in maintaining the health and efficiency of the human neural network as a whole.
Supplements That Promote Nerve Growth Factor
Levi-Montalcini remained mentally alert and active until her death at the age of 103 and claimed that daily doses of NGF, taken via eye drops, were largely responsible for her continued mental clarity and vigor.
Though the cost of NGF in this form (estimated at over $10,000 per year) puts it well out of the reach of most people, there are affordable and readily available supplements that have been proven to enhance the body’s natural production of NGF.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
The Lion’s Mane mushroom has been a staple of Chinese medicine for centuries, used both as a memory and cognition enhancer and as a treatment for gastric problems and inflammatory disorders.
Modern research on the Lion’s Mane indicates that it contains neuroactive compounds which induce NGF synthesis.
It also acts as an antioxidant and neuroprotective against oxidative stress, which is an important cause of cellular damage that can lead to neural death.
Though Lion’s Mane Mushroom is a powerful nootropic and neurogenesis promoting agent on its own, it’s even more effective when taken in combination with other NGF-enhancing compounds.
Noopept is a relatively new nootropic developed in Russia in 1995, compliments the neurogenesis-promoting action of Lion’s Mane Mushroom.
A synthetic peptide that readily crosses the blood brain barrier, Noopept provides a cognitive boost similar to that of the well-known nootropic piracetam, but it is much more potent.
Like Lion’s Mane mushroom, Noopept has been shown to increase the expression of NGF in the hippocampus and it is believed to significantly enhance neuronal restoration, which makes it a potential treatment for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Studies show that Noopept also enhances production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF in animal models, which helps reinforce the survival of existing neurons and strengthen the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.
Alpha GPC is a high quality source of choline, a crucial B vitamin that fuels tissue renewal and is the building block for acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter most strongly associated with learning, memory, and cognition.
Studies indicate that NGF increases the synthesis of choline to acetylcholine in the forebrain and hippocampus, so maintaining a sufficiency of choline is essential to the growth and survival of new neurons.
Lion’s Mane mushroom, Noopept, and Alpha GPC can all boost the process of neurogenesis. Taken in combination they’re an excellent means of helping the brain create new neurons.
The Nootropic/Neurogenesis Effect of Running
Taking supplements isn’t the only means of encouraging neurogenesis. Research indicates that one of the best ways to promote the creation of new neurons is as simple as going for a run.
As little as 30 to 40 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity has been shown to lead to the growth of new neurons, triggered by an exercise-induced increase in the expression of NGF and the proliferation of cholinergic neurons.
Scientists believe there may be a direct relationship between exercise-induced neurogenesis and the mood improvement, feelings of calm alertness, and pervasive mental clarity that people typically experience after a run or period of vigorous aerobic exercise.
The new cell growth that has been observed after running occurs in the hippocampus, which is strongly associated with learning and memory.
In addition, running can help promote the health and continued growth of both new and existing neurons by increasing blood flow to the frontal lobe.
This increased blood flow not only has a definite neuroprotective effect, it’s also known to be a mood booster and can result in significant cognitive benefits like increased focus, clearer thinking, and improved planning, time management, and decision making.
The Dietary Difference
Eating the right foods can actually encourage neurogenesis. Animal studies show that curcuminoids, components of the Indian spice turmeric, increase new neuron production in the hippocampus.
Studies of the effects of curcuminoids on human neurogenesis are limited and inconclusive, but curcumin is known to have cognition enhancing properties.
Other foods that promote neurogenesis include the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon and tuna, which are known to upregulate the production of new neurons in adult brains.
The anthocyanin dye that naturally gives blueberries their distinctive color is also believed to encourage neurogenesis, and animal studies confirm that a substance called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) contained in green tea encouraged new neuron growth in adult mice.
While no similar studies have documented the same effect in humans, green tea is known to have a beneficial effect on general cognition.
More Ways To Encourage Neurogenesis
One of the most reliable means of promoting brain health and new neuron growth is living in what science refers to as an enriched environment, in which the brain is stimulated by both its physical and social surroundings.
In addition to healthy diet and sufficient physical exercise, an enriched environment also includes intellectual challenge, novelty and exposure to new things, and close bonds with others.
In the 1960s neuroscientist Marian Diamond published groundbreaking studies on the effects of enriched vs. impoverished environments, documenting the effects of both in terms of brain development. Animals living in enriched environments consistently developed larger brains, while those in impoverished environments shows signs of brain atrophy.
Many studies have since confirmed Diamond’s findings, showing that enriched environments encourage neurogenesis.
This research is of particular interest in the study of age-related cognitive decline and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
It’s possible that the increased neurogenesis created by simply enriching the environment could offset age-related cognitive decline and brain atrophy to at least some extent, and may help delay or prevent the onset of other neurological conditions.
But promoting neurogenesis isn’t all about exercise, healthy food, and enriched environments. Studies have linked both psilocybin mushrooms and the cannabinoids found in laboratory-grade synthetic marijuana with increased neurogenesis, and a 2010 study indicates that sexual experience increases neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
Sexual experience has also been found to restore age-related decline in adult neurogenesis.
The Down Side: Factors That Inhibit Neurogenesis
Just as there are factors that can promote the growth of new neurons, there are factors that can inhibit it.
Excessive stress, isolation and extensive exposure to impoverished environments, and prolonged sleep deprivation have all been shown to reduce neurogenesis.
Lack of regular aerobic exercise can reduce the rate of new neuron growth, as can excess consumption of alcohol and refined sugars.
Why Neurogenesis Matters
The discovery of adult neurogenesis forever changed the way we look at the human brain and its performance.
The belief that neuron loss was irreplaceable set a limit on expectations, and thus on research and subsequent advancements related to brain capability; the brain’s ability to reshape and adapt itself to new conditions and environments was considered negligible, and cognitive decline was accepted as an inevitable part of normal aging. The outlook for people with neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases was bleak at best.
Knowing that the brain can continue to grow and replenish neurons throughout adulthood opens the door to a world of exciting possibilities. Cognitive enhancement through neuroplasticity, the retention of mental alertness and acuity for an entire lifetime, and treatment of neurological damage and disorders are all now very real possibilities that are being studied all over the world.
On an individual level, taking steps to actively encourage brain growth and renewal is a simple process that could have a tremendous payoff in just about every aspect of physical and mental health. It makes solid scientific sense for anyone who is interested in maximizing their cognition and neuroplasticity now and maintaining maximum mental abilities in years to come.