Dr. Menahem Segal, head of the Laboratory of Neuronal Plasticity at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, studies the neuronal basis of long term memory in the brain. Of particular interest are conditions that are associated with deterioration of memory systems, such as those occurring in Alzheimer’s disease patients and mentally retarded children.
Many people believe that the brain is hardwired in childhood and, as we grow older, cognitive decline is inevitable; we becoming more forgetful, less inclined to seek new experiences and more set in our ways. During the late 1990s, the work of early childhood advocates to focus on learning during the first three years of life had a dramatic impact public opinion and social policy that has lasted almost a decade. Indeed, the importance of learning during a child’s first three years of life was widely accepted as a fact of early neurological development. Unfortunately, advocacy efforts actually countered what neuroscientists were discovering about the brain and its development .
Scientific research in the late 1990s was finding that the adult brain had a much greater capacity for neuroplasticity — the ability to change structure and function in response to thought, learning and experience — than was previously believed [2-3]. Neuroscientists found that the adult brain was capable of growing new dendrites, branched projections from a neuron or nerve cell that conduct electrochemical stimulation received from other neural cells toward the cell body of the neuron, which are often damaged as a result of traumatic head injury or stroke. In adult macaques, researchers found that new neurons were produced in brain regions important for congitive function . The view that aging was equivalent to ubiquitous and rapid cognitive decline thus gave way to a recognition that, for some people, mental acuity continues well into old age. Today, it’s common to hear about “brain fitness” and/or “brain training” products that can help to maintain and/or rebuild cognitive performance. However, in this rapidly evolving field, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction.