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Throughout our lives, we continue to learn. Yet, for years the medical fraternity was in agreement that the human brain (and that of many other animals) was unable to grow any new signalling cells or neurons after embryonic development.

Today, that belief has changed. ‘In the latter half of the 20th century, scientists found that new cells are born in the brain throughout life,’ writes Alexis Wnuk on BrainFacts.org, a US public initiative of the Society for Neuroscience, the Kavli Foundation and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. ‘Today, this knowledge is helping scientists understand learning and memory.’

Fire it up   

Scientists have found neurogenesis — the birth of new brain cells —takes place in specific sections of the adult brain, one of which is the hippocampus. This part of the brain controls learning and memory.

‘Some scientists believe the addition of new neurons to the hippocampus may enhance learning and memory because new neurons are more plastic than older neurons, meaning they can more easily modify their connections to form and store memories,’ writes Elizabeth Gould, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, on BrainFacts.org.

This means that every time you learn something new or gain a new skill, you are strengthening your brain because the performance of the synapse – the areas between neurons where information is transferred – gets fired up.

According to science and technology magazine Scientific American, ‘Many different events can increase a synapse’s strength when we learn new skills. The process that we understand best is called long-term potentiation, in which repeatedly stimulating two neurons at the same time fortifies the link between them. After a strong connection is established between these neurons, stimulating the first neuron will more likely excite the second.’

Other benefits of learning include improving your memory, and increasing your language and verbal skills. This could also, later in life, reduce the risk of conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Flex your brain power  

GetSmarter, a brand of 2U, Inc., a digital education company based in Cape Town, makes it easy for you to learn something new to kick-start your synapses.

There are a range of courses available from both local and international tertiary institutions if you’re looking to develop your career or for personal growth.

Click on the course name below to get more information.