Life and death in the living brain

Brain neuronsLike clockwork, brain regions in many songbird species expand and shrink seasonally in response to hormones. Now, for the first time, University of Washington neurobiologists have interrupted this natural "annual remodeling" of the brain and have shown that there is a direct link between the death of old neurons and their replacement by newly born ones in a living vertebrate.

The scientists introduced a chemical into one side of sparrow brains in an area that helps control singing behavior to halt apoptosis, a cell suicide program. Twenty days after introduction of the hormones the researchers found that there were 48 percent fewer new neurons than there were in the side of the brain that did not receive the cell suicide inhibitor.

"This is the first demonstration that if you decrease apoptosis you also decrease the number of new brain cells in a live animal. The next step is to understand this process at the molecular level," said Eliot Brenowitz, a UW professor of psychology and biology and co-author of a new study. His co-author is Christopher Thompson, who earned his doctorate at the UW and is now at the Free University of Berlin.

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