Preparing for adulthood: thousands upon thousands of new cells are born in the hippocampus during puberty, and most survive with effortful learning
The dentate gyrus of the hippocampal formation generates new granule neurons throughout life. The number of neurons produced each day is inversely related to age, with thousands more produced during puberty than during adulthood, and many fewer produced during senescence. In adulthood, approximately half of these cells undergo apoptosis shortly after they are generated. Most of these cells can be rescued from death by effortful and successful learning experiences (Gould et al., 1999; Waddell and Shors, 2008; Curlik and Shors, 2011). Once rescued, the newly-generated cells differentiate into neurons, and remain in the hippocampus for at least several months (Leuner et al., 2004). Here, we report that many new hippocampal cells also undergo cell death during puberty. Because the juvenile brain is more plastic than during adulthood, and because many experiences are new, we hypothesized that a great number of cells would be rescued by learning during puberty. Indeed, adolescent rats that successfully acquired the trace eyeblink response retained thousands more cells than animals that were not trained, and those that failed to learn. Because the hippocampus generates thousands more cells during puberty than during adulthood, these results support the idea that the adolescent brain is especially responsive to learning. This enhanced response can have significant consequences for the functional integrity of the hippocampus. Such a massive increase in cell proliferation is likely an adaptive response as the young animal must emerge from the care of its mother to face the dangers, challenges, and opportunities of adulthood.