Improving the Brain: Growing more Neurons or Making More Connections between Neurons?

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor and Learning Specialist, Langara College Counselling Department.


An interesting German report in Newsweek (March 8, 2018) is as follows:

Adult Brains Do Not Grow New Neurons, Says New Study, Challenging Prior Consensus

Nevertheless, the above study can itself be challenged, as the reporter (Melissa Matthews) has noted cited recent studies published in the Scientific American Mind Edition (Winter 2017). Before citing some of the Scientific American findings, it is notable that Matthews makes the following statement:

Our brain is thought to create new neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that regulates emotion and memory, in a process called neurogenesis.”

I am unaware of any such assumption in the research literature. Instead, the general (scientific) consensus is that the hippocampus, is the builder of memories – NOT neurons. “Neurogenesis” is the generation of new neurons, a process distinct from the building of memories. Yes, neurons build memories, but that is not the same neurons themselves being generated or created. As noted by Donald G. Mackay (Professor of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles) one of the world’s top researchers in memory and amnesia, the hippocampus region is involved in:

“… preserving old memories as well as making new ones. Just as a builder can make a new structure or repair a damage done, so could the hippocampus craft new memories to replace those that have been degraded or fragmented with time” (Mackay, 2018, pp.16-17).

Matthews also appears to be confusing the limbic system with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a part of the limbic system, which is involved in emotional regulation and (because of the hippocampus) memory building. However: each new memory built by the hippocampus also acquires an “emotional signature” or “stamp” from the amygdala (also part of the Limbic System). The insula is also critical for emotional regulation. As noted by Patricia S. Daniels:

Memories are more likely to stick if they combine information with emotionEmotions help memories form and stick …” (Daniels, 2018, pp. 38, 96)

This then leads to the overall premise of the study that questions that adult brains cannot build new neurons. The findings reported (that the adult brain cannot grow new neurons) is essentially corroborating what the mainstream research is aware of already. However, Matthews does acknowledge the following in her Newsweek report:

This study only looked for neurogenesis in the hippocampus, so that doesn’t mean neurons aren’t created in other areas of the brain. … “I think the possibility is real that someday we’ll be able to rejuvenate the aging brain” [Jason Snyder, Behavioral neuroscientist at University of British Columbia, as cited by Matthews]”

The news may be even more uplifting. There are a number of studies that suggest that more brain volume (not necessarily neurons however) may be generated, however the results certainly need to be replicated and more research is required.

Sara W. Lazar (Harvard University) and her colleagues have investigated whether meditation can lead to structural changes in brain tissue. Using MRI Technology, Lazar et al. found that meditators possessed a greater volume brain tissue in the following areas:

  1. Pre-Frontal Cortex (Brodmann Areas 9 & 10)
  2. Insula

Note that that areas 1-2 cited above are associated with the processing of attention, sensory information, and internal bodily sensations. Note that the Lazar et al. study found an increase in brain volume – this was the number of connections between neurons (i.e. synapses and dendrites of neurons linking to each other). New learning takes place as neurons make connections with each other, forming groups associated with the learning of new concepts (known also as “cell assemblies).


Daniels, P. S. (2018). The learning brain. National Geographic: Special Edition – Your Brain: 100 Things You Never Knew, pp.21-49.

Daniels, P. S. (2018). The emotional brain. National Geographic: Special Edition – Your Brain: 100 Things You Never Knew, pp.91-109.

Mackay, D.G. (2018). The engine of memory. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.11-17.

Ricard, M., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R.J. (2017). Mind of the meditator. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.61-67.

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