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May 27, 2014 05:25 PM EDT

Learning In Early Life May Help Brain Cells Survive

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Learning in early life may help keep brain cells alive, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey found that when people use their brain - particularly during adolescence-their brain cells are more likely to survive.

The investigative team found that the newborn brain cells in young rats that were successful at learning survived while the same brain cells in animals that didn't master the task died quickly.

"In those that didn't learn, three weeks after the new brain cells were made, nearly one-half of them were no longer there," Tracey Shors, co-author of the study and a professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers, said in a statement.  "But in those that learned, it was hard to count.  There were so many that were still alive."

Shor added that the study was important because it suggests that the massive proliferation of new brain cells most likely helps young animals leave the protectiveness of their mothers and face dangers, challenges and opportunities of adulthood.

While scientists can't measure individual brain cells in humans, Shors said the study, on the cellular level, provides a look at what is happening in the adolescent brain and provides a window into the amazing ability the brain has to reorganize itself and form new neural connections at such a transformational time in our lives.

 "Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are now, who they want to be when they grow up and are at school in a learning environment all day long," she said. "The brain has to have a lot of strength to respond to all those experiences."

Since the process of producing new brain cells on a cellular level is similar in animals, including humans, Shors says ensuring that adolescent children learn at optimal levels is critical.

"What it has shown me, especially as an educator, is how difficult it is to achieve optimal learning for our students. You don't want the material to be too easy to learn and yet still have it too difficult where the student doesn't learn and gives up," Shors said.

The findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers.

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