mood Monkey Brains

by Daryl Lease

Published in Issue No. 12 ~ May, 1998

Scientists have just made an exciting discovery about the brain that should save us a lot of money on candy bars and soft drinks.

Researchers say they’ve recently completed a series of experiments that indicate we humans are capable of generating new brain cells as we grow older.

Until now, neurobiologists have believed that this simply wasn’t possible.

Once the light bulbs in our brains begin to fizzle and pop, we were told, there wasn’t much use rummaging in the hallway closet for new ones. The best we could hope for, metaphorically speaking, was a comfortable couch and enough remaining wattage to read by.

In fact, for many years, scientists have thought that there were only two creatures on the planet who were able to generate new gray matter once they’d entered adulthood – birds and, ahem, rats.

That’s right. Rats.

I’m paraphrasing here, but as I understand it, a rat could go off to college, drink several pitchers of beer a week, graduate with a 1.3 GPA, get a job in a dimly lit, windowless office, sit through interminable meetings led by insufferable managers, and still be able to regenerate enough brain cells to sing more than two consecutive lines of any given Top 40 song before dissolving into incomprehensible mumbling and humming.

Human beings, meanwhile, were destined to live out the rest of their natural lives as hummers.

But now scientists say that isn’t the case it all.

In a series of experiments at several major research facilities, neurobiologists have been tracing the fate of brain cells in adult marmoset monkeys.

Much to their surprise, researchers have found that new brain cells are being generated in the monkeys’ hippocampus, the area of the brain where long-term memories are formed.

Scientists say they fully expect that the same holds true for humans.

I can’t speak for everyone, least of all the monkeys, but I think this is a lovely development.

Now, when I stand in the middle of my bedroom in the morning, trying to remember where I put my shoes the night before, I can rejoice in the fact that – maybe by midday – I might spawn enough new brain cells to find not only my shoes but my car keys too.

As I said, there’s even better news – this discovery is also likely to mean we’ll all be spending less money on candy bars and soft drinks.

While scientists have been tinkering with monkey brains in the laboratory, hard-working American entrepreneurs have been devising their own ways to jump-start the brains of old fogies like you and me.

What they’ve come up with is a line of products known as “functional foods,” or “nutriceuticals.”

For example, Personal Health Development, a California company, is marketing a candy bar called “Think!” It contains various herbs and plant extracts that purportedly increase “mental alertness, calmness, stamina and concentration.”

A Minneapolis-based company, Intelligent Nutrients, is peddling a competing candy bar called – simply enough, “Intellect” – that supposedly will curtail memory lapses and improve circulation to the brain.

Beverage companies have also been getting into the act with special herbal drinks that are said to “sharpen the mind” and “rejuvenate the brain.”

A company in Connecticut, for instance, has begun selling “Wisdom,” an orange-mango drink that promises to produce “calm and focused thought.”

It’s heartening, I suppose, to know that someone has finally come up with a way to bottle wisdom and put it on a convenience store shelf.

But I think I’ll save my money just the same and wait until scientists wrap up their research with the monkeys and tell us if there’s a cheaper way to speed up the production of our brain cells.

In the meantime, I think I’m going to take a little break from the rat race and find myself a nice, comfortable, old napping couch.

Dim the lights on the way out, will you?

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Daryl Lease is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virginia.