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Synaptogenesis: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Did you know that you have synaptogenesis going on right now? Luckily, that's a good thing! This lesson tells you all about what this term means and how it affects your brain throughout your lifetime.

Definition

Early this morning I used the word synaptogenesis while talking to my 12 year old daughter, who promptly looked at me like I had grown an extra appendage out of my head. The word can definitely be long and intimidating, but let's break it down into more manageable pieces. The two root words are synapse and genesis. Synapses are connections between nerve cells, and genesis means the beginning or start of something. The combination of synapse and genesis becomes the creation of connections between nerve cells in the brain, or neurons. This occurs in all animals with a brain, but is particularly pronounced in humans. Although synaptogenesis happens to some degree throughout a human's lifetime, there are periods where it happens much faster than others.

Brain Growth Lessons

When it comes to brains, bigger isn't always better. Albert Einstein had a brain that was perfectly normal as far as size goes, but his thoughts produced one of most astounding scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. As far as we can tell, intelligence comes from the number of connections between brain cells, not the number of brain cells themselves.

At about week 12 of a pregnancy, a human fetus starts to undergo a tremendous growth in the number of synapses in the brain. This period is known as exuberant synaptogenesis and lasts roughly until eight or nine months after birth. The number of synapses that are created in this time is mostly determined by the genetics of the individual.

Growth in Later Life

Brain researchers have also found a second period of rapid synaptogenesis in humans: adolescence. It's not as dramatic as exuberant synaptogenesis, but there are many more synapses being created at this time than there are later in life.

Does this mean that intelligence is determined only by our nature? If there is a trauma in this period, is intelligence impacted negatively? It turns out that these rather logical assumptions are false. Genetics plays a large role in synapse creation, but the environment plays a bigger role in which synapses are kept. This is part of the plasticity of the brain - its ability to change in response to different external and internal stimuli.

For example, human babies are born with the ability to learn any of the 6,000 or so languages currently spoken on our planet, or in the case of some twins, invent new languages. However, most people will only ever use one or two languages fluently. Where does the potential for the other languages go?

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