New Neurons Erase Memories

Dentate gyrus

Neurogenesis occurs in the dentate gyrus, pictured here, from birth through adulthood.

A baby laughs at an elephant at the zoo. A toddler runs across a beach. Small children make memories all the time, but how many will they recall as the years pass? Maybe none at all. The phenomenon is called “infantile amnesia,” and scientists may have pinpointed a reason for why it occurs – neurogenesis.

Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto say that when new brain cells integrate into existing circuitry, they remodel the structure of networks already in place, wiping out the information previously stored there. This process is prevalent in infancy and early childhood because this is the time when new brain cells are being generated faster and more frequently than at any other time in a human being’s life. Humans and other mammals spawn new neurons throughout their lifespans, although the rate of neurogenesis decreases significantly with age.

In their paper, published in Science, the researchers explain how recent studies have focused on how new brain cells can lead to new memories, but the Toronto team speculated that neurogenesis could also wipe away memories. To test their hypothesis, they conducted a series of studies on populations of newborn and adult mice. Neuron development in mice occurs in much the same way as in humans, with rapid cell genesis in infancy that tapers off with age.

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