A Startling Discovery: Learning About, and Drinking, Wine Encourages New Brain Cells
About 20 years ago, around the same time as the French paradox caused a dramatic rise in North American wine consumption, a century-old scientific belief, as self-evident as gravity and as immutable as the speed of light, was unintentionally proved false by the song of a bird.
Over the course of the 20th century, neuroscientists came to believe that humans are born with a complete set of brain cells, and that once infancy was over, the brain stopped changing, evolving, and growing. A neuron lost was never replaced, resulting in a dwindling network of neural pathways that degenerated over the course of our lifetime; the waves of years slowly but inescapably eroding our minds, washing away our capacity to think and remember. How depressing.
That is, until Fernando Nottebohm, working at Rockefeller University in New York City, made his startling discovery. In an elegant study of birdbrains, not remotely aimed at disproving our fated neuro-degeneration but rather at unlocking the secrets of birds’ remarkable capacity to learn new songs, Nottebohm observed neurogenesis. He saw that new neurons were born regularly in parts of a mature bird’s brain, and that these new neurons were essential to the song learning process. His amazing results were at first marginalized by the scientific community, since avian brains were seen as irrelevant to mammalian brains, but the door was opened to an entirely new field of inquiry. Old papers from the ‘60s hinting at the fact were dusted off and re-read, and further studies on mammals were conducted. In time, the crushing weight of evidence would overturn the long-held dogma that the brain doesn’t regenerate, and an unavoidable conclusion was drawn: mammals, including humans, grow new brain cells with comforting regularity.
Others before Nottebohm had searched for evidence of neurogenesis, though most experiments ended in failure. What Nottebohm had unwittingly done differently was to study birds in their natural environment, as opposed to a laboratory, as others has attempted. Earlier studies on mice and monkeys trapped in cages in dreary labs surrounded by white coat-clad scientists showed no signs of birthing new neurons. Neurogenesis, it turns out, is highly dependent on your surroundings. Unnatural, uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant environments cause stress, which is now understood as an even more insidious and effective killer than previously thought. Stress inhibits neurogenesis. Sleep deprivation, too, has also been shown to curb the number of newborn neurons. Yet more reasons to avoid stress and sleep more, as though you needed a reminder.
The flip side, and here’s where I’ll get around to my tenuous tie-in to wine, is that anti-stress activities increase neurogenesis. Though alcohol is known to unwind the body, resulting at least in neurons transmitting electrical signals in the same alpha waves-pattern as is observed when the body is relaxed, I won’t suggest for a moment that drinking wine increases the birth of neurons (in the same way that it increases other types of birth). In fact, I’m sure that just the opposite is true. No, I’m referring to other anti-stress activities. Enriching your environment, talking a walk in the woods (or the park) does wonders for the mind. Regular exercise is a proven new neuron stimulator. And yet another effective stimulator, as Nottebohm stumbled across, is learning. Acquiring new knowledge not only increases neurogenesis, it also makes newly born neurons live longer (most new brain cells die young) and integrate better into existing brain structures, effectively putting them into use.
So, why not do your neurons a favour while engaging in something you enjoy? The field of wine is vast and full of learning opportunities. And the homework is not at all stressful. There is also a further benefit to delving deeper into an enjoyable field, a type of virtuous circle or positive feedback loop: learning about wine not only stimulates the birth of neurons, it also directly increases your capacity to enjoy it, which in turn will encourage you to learn more about it, and on and on.
A further fact about neurogenesis makes the case for delving into wine even stronger: neurons only grow in the parts of the brain that happen to be most titillated by conscious wine tasting. Studies so far have shown that the greatest regions of neurogenesis are the hippocampus, the memory and learning center, and the olfactory bulb, where all aromas are processed. It appears that new olfactory bulb neurons are critically involved in odor discrimination and improved odor memory. At the same time, differentiating between smells, as wine drinkers are constantly doing as they swirl and sniff, actually increases the survival rate of newborn olfactory neurons.
In other words, repeated smelling and tasting of wine, coupled with ongoing learning about grapes, regions, places, producers and everything else related, plus travel to beautiful wine country under relaxed conditions, could very well increase your brain regeneration capacity. And you’ll inevitably end up enjoying wine a little bit more, too.
Well, that was a whole lot of scientific mumbo jumbo to reach a starkly obvious conclusion. But at least now you have rock solid, scientific evidence that your passion for wine is not only enjoyable, it’s good for your brain, too.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier