Neuron Culture

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At this week’s Mind Matters (the expert-written blog seminar I edit for sciam.com), Julie A. Markham of the University of Ililnois and Martha J. Farah of the University of Pennsylvania ponder how stimulating environments (read: better digs) and (of all things) fatherhood can build brains and make you smarter, at least if you’re a marmoset.

The studies in question find that bigger, more interesting cages and fatherhood both spurred growth of dendritic spines — the neuron’s info receivers — in marmosets. I was quite interested to read this, since two years ago I moved into a bigger, funner house and soon after had another kid. The marmoset in me should be a lot smarter than it was a while back. Whether it is … well, I’m not sure I’m smart enough to tell.

But this is fascinating stuff, and I recommend it highly. My intro to the posts (from the Mind Matters site) is below, or you can go straight there from here.

That the brain undergoes physical changes in response to life’s experiences seems at once glaringly obvious and endlessly surprising. How could we possibly adapt to different situations if our brains stayed the same? Yet it’s still easy to find actual descriptions of these changes arresting and almost alarming. Changes you can count or measure — changes in number and length of dendrites, creation of new neurons — seem too finite, too … well, insubstantial to account for the subtle alterations in thought, behavior and knowledge with which we respond to change.

Thus the fascination of studies like the two discussed here. Both come from the lab of Liz Gould at Princeton, a “power house,” as one researcher recently put it, of research on how positive changes in experience or environment (“enrichment,” in the neurojargon) affect the brain. (For a good profile of Gould and her work, see this article by Jonah Lehrer.) One shows that the neuronal benefits of enriched lab environments found many times in rodents are seen in marmosets as well — a finding unsurprising, given the record in rodent studies, but significant for showing this dynamic carries over to primates, bringing it closer to our human home, as it were. The other paper shows that new marmoset fathers undergo similar brain changes, That is new — and to addled parents too tired to think, a bit surprising. As our commenters explain, both papers carry some interesting and in some cases interesting implications. Here to explore them are psychologists Julie A. Markham of the University of Ililnois and Martha J. Farah of the University of Pennsylvania.

Join them, and us, in an enriching discussion.