An active life makes a better brain

By ROSIE MESTEL in LOS ANGELES The more you use your brain, the longer the branches in your nerve cells grow, say researchers from the University of California. Neglect your brain, and the fine fibres that help your nerve cells to receive messages may shrink. These fibres – called dendrites – are rootlike projections that grow out from nerve cells. Messages from other nerve cells usually touch down on the dendrites; and the more dendrite, the more information a nerve cell can receive and the better it can do its job. Bob Jacobs, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, worked with Arnold Scheibel and Matthew Schall to study the lengths of dendrites in 20 human brains. From each brain, he took samples of Wernicke’s area, which plays an important part in understanding language. Jacobs found that the lengths of the dendrites varied by as much as 40 per cent between the different brains. To some extent, the length decreased with age, and women – who tend to have better verbal skills than men – had longer dendrites on average. But the third finding was most intriguing: those who had pursued intellectually vigorous lifestyles – going to college, holding intellectually demanding jobs – had longer dendrites than those who had not. There are two possible explanations for the difference, says Jacobs. Intellectually challenging lifestyles could cause dendrites to grow longer. Or, having long dendrites could lead people to live intellectually challenging lives. Jacobs favours the first idea: studies of animals in ‘enriched’ environments – rats raised in cages filled with toys, for instance – show similar changes in brain structure. Whatever its cause, dendrite enrichment in bookish types would probably not apply across the whole brain, Jacobs says. ‘If we looked at the motor cortex, for example, we might have found that people who’d had manual labour jobs that involved using their hands with dexterity would have been above average,
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