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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Jun;1016:628-58.

The road we travelled: discovery, choreography, and significance of brain replaceable neurons.

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The Rockefeller University, Field Research Center, Tyrrel Road, Millbrook, NY 12545, USA.


Neurons are constantly added to the telencephalon of songbirds. In the high vocal center (HVC), where this has been studied, new neurons replace older ones that died. Peaks in replacement are seasonal and affect some neuronal classes but not others. Peaks in replacement coincide with peaks in information acquisition. The new neurons are produced by division of cells in the wall of the lateral ventricle. Where studied closely, the neuronal stem cells proved to be radial glia. Life expectancy of the new neurons ranges from weeks to months. New neuron survival is regulated by vacancies, hormones, and activity. The immediate agent of new neuron survival is, in some cases, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The effect of BDNF is maximal 14-20 days after the cells are born, when they are establishing their connections. These observations are now being extended to other vertebrates and may apply, to varying degrees, to all of them. The function of neuronal replacement in healthy adult brain remains unclear. If synaptic number and efficacy sufficed as mechanisms for long-term memory storage and could be adjusted again and again to incorporate new memories, then neuronal replacement would seem unnecessary. Since it occurs, it seems reasonable to suppose that replacement serves to maintain learning potential in a way that could not be done just by synaptic change. Long-term memories may be encoded by long-term changes in gene expression akin to a last step in cell differentiation. If so, neuronal replacement may be the adult brain's way of striking a balance between limited memory space and the need to acquire new memories. The testing of this hypothesis remains in the future. This chapter tells how neuronal replacement was discovered in the adult songbird brain.

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