The Listeners from Below

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Deep within your brain, they are listening. In still silence, they await signals from afar – dim echoes of distant calls. And when they hear what they’ve been waiting for… they will awaken.

They are known as neural stem cells – and not only are they real; researchers have just made some major discoveries about how they work. Those discoveries demonstrate that what seems like a biological accident may in fact be a crucial component of a delicate process.

Let me tell you the tale, in my new article for Scientific American: “What Your Neural Stem Cells Aren’t Telling You.”

In 2000, a team of neuroscientists put an unusual idea to the test. Stress and depression, they knew, made neurons wither and die – particularly in the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for memory. So the researchers put some stressed-out rats on an antidepressant regimen, hoping the mood boost might protect some of those hippocampal neurons. When they checked in a few weeks later, though, the team found that rats’ hippocampuses hadn’t just survived intact; they’d grown whole new neurons – bundles of them. But that was only the beginning…

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