Neuroplasticity in old age: Sustained fivefold induction of hippocampal neurogenesis by long-term environmental enrichment

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Abstract

Neurons are continually born from endogenous stem cells and added to the dentate gyrus throughout life, but adult hippocampal neurogenesis declines precipitously with age. Short-term exposure to an enriched environment leads to a striking increase in new neurons, along with a substantial improvement in behavioral performance. Could this plastic response be relevant for explaining the beneficial effects of leading “an active life” on brain function and pathology? Adult hippocampal neurogenesis in mice living in an enriched environment from the age of 10 to 20 months was fivefold higher than in controls. Relatively, the increase in neuronal phenotypes was entirely at the expense of newly generated astrocytes. This cellular plasticity occurred in the context of significant improvements of learning parameters, exploratory behavior, and locomotor activity. Enriched living mice also had a reduced lipofuscin load in the dentate gyrus, indicating decreased nonspecific age-dependent degeneration. Therefore, in mice signs of neuronal aging can be diminished by a sustained active and challenging life, even if this stimulation started only at medium age. Activity exerts not only an acute but also a sustained effect on brain plasticity.

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