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What Kills Brain Cells?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What Kills Brain Cells

It wouldn’t be wrong to call the brain the most complex organ of the human body. Even though it works tirelessly to make all the systems work, we often neglect to pay attention to its coaching, fitness, and needs. As mighty and sturdy as you may assume your brain is, it is actually a pretty delicate organ, and even the tiniest lifestyle changes can directly impact it. Even if the association isn’t clear enough, these changes can also affect the mind’s well-being, directly or indirectly.

One particular effect that the brain is particularly vulnerable to is thinning or killing of the brain cells, a phenomenon that can occur in people who are not particularly careful about their brain health. Also known as brain atrophy or cerebral atrophy, the killing of brain cells disrupts the communication between different neurons, consequently affecting all functions of the body in one way or the other. But what kills these brain cells in the first place, and can the brain ever recover from it? Keep reading to find out.

A Quick Overview of the Brain Cells

The human brain consists of different types of cells, each with its own functions. The most common ones are called neurons, whereas the rest of the cells are collectively known as glia. These brain cells, including neurons, are responsible for transmitting chemical and electrical messages throughout the nervous system. By acting as the brain’s fundamental units, neurons communicate and relay information to other organs and tissues and help them carry out their respective jobs optimally.

An adult human brain is said to have approximately 100 billion neurons and a possibly equal number of glia, if not more. These brain cells collectively help us feel, think, move, and analyze the environment. An effectively working brain requires both glial cells and neurons to keep on functioning without glitches.

Both neurons and glial cells are further classified into different types based on which area of the brain they form and what functions they carry out.[1] The human brain has three main areas: the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain.


The forebrain includes the cerebrum and cerebral cortex and is mostly associated with higher-level functions, such as behavior and perception.


The midbrain is situated just below the cerebrum near the center of the brain and controls hearing, vision, sleep-wake cycle, and motor control.


The hindbrain is the back of the brain and includes the cerebellum, a part that influences positioning, mobility, maintenance of equilibrium, vascular and pulmonary centers, and modulation.

Why Do Brain Cells Die, and What are the Consequences?

Before we can explore what kills brain cells in detail, it is imperative to understand why brain cells die and the consequences of their death. Loss of brain cells occurs as a normal part of aging and is primarily a natural element of central nervous system development, and is triggered by evolutionary changes. However, sometimes, the process can also occur or get sped up by the presence of secondary factors, like brain disease.

The human brain is a very resilient and adaptive organ; however, it has limits too. When too many brain cells begin to die, it leads to extensive brain damage and many negative symptoms, such as the following:

  • Short and long-term loss of memory
  • Impairment of cognitive processes
  • Behavioral changes
  • Reduced motor and fine motor abilities

The death of neurons due to secondary factors, for example, drug use, can also pave the way for mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia. The ultimate result is an overall decreased quality of life that messes with your love and ability to do things you enjoy.

Things that Can Kill your Brain Cells

There are plenty of things that carry the potential to kill your brain cells. Psychological damage to the brain or any other part of the central nervous system may kill or disable neurons very easily. Additionally, direct blows to the brain, such as those due to a stroke, may kill neurons instantly or slowly starve them of nutrition and oxygen until they die.[2]

While most of us are aware of the medical causes leading to brain cell death, experts have identified many other non-medical causes that can potentially kill your brain cells. Some of these include the following:

Excess Screen Time

High screen time can significantly harm the development and shape of the brain. Most of this damage occurs in the frontal cortex, which causes dramatic changes in the brain, especially in adolescents and people in their mid-twenties. Some children who spend more than seven hours in front of a screen experience thinning of their cerebral cortex due to excessive brain cell deaths.

Screen Time Kills Brain Cells

Substance Use and Smoking

Nicotine can damage the brain cells and prevent new ones from developing in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with damage. This discovery has explained why so many heavy smokers experience cognitive issues as they attempt to undergo detoxification. Cerebral injury secondary to alcohol or drug use may occur at different levels, starting from normal cell damage to serious physical harm, such as brain hypoxia due to overdosing.[3]

Eating Habits

You are what you eat, and this holds true when it comes to your brain health. Your nutrition plays an essential role in determining mental health. Inflammatory eating patterns, including trans-fat, processed carbs, and high-fructose foods, can impair memory and learning, kill brain cells, and increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Using too much sugar

Sugar is present in almost all types of foods, whether we are aware of it or not. Processed sugar intake is reported to impair the brain and body from absorbing proteins and nutrients. It is okay to eat your favorite donut every week if you eat it in a normal portion.


Eating much more than the body requires leads to the formation of cholesterol deposits in the arteries, thickening them in the process and leading to reduced blood flow to the brain cells. The result? A serious impairment of the brain’s everyday functioning and a much higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease.


When you don’t have enough water in the body, the ions get disrupted, making brain injury likely. Maintaining adequate water levels in the brain and the bloodstream, on the other hand, can keep neurons healthy and happy.

Skipping breakfast

The human brain not only needs the right nutrition, but it needs it at the right time. The rushing lifestyles of today can easily make a lot of people miss breakfast just to save a bit of time every morning. Skipping breakfast can cause a lack of sugar and nutrients in the brain, and because the organ purely runs on sugar, it may shut down or experience negative impacts.

Sleep Deprivation

Have you ever felt like a zombie because you have been working all the time with no sleep? This can not only make you feel terrible but do scary things to the brain, such as impacting the thinking skills, affecting the attention span, and diminishing long- and short-term memory. If your sleep deprivation is due to sleep apnea, a condition that causes pauses in breathing during sleep, the risk of brain damage is even greater. People with sleep apnea undergo changes in two critical neurotransmitters in the brain: GABA and Glutamate. When the levels of these neurotransmitters are out of whack, it can put the mind under stress and kill brain cells eventually. Sleep deprivation is also a risk factor for cognitive detriment and dementia.[4]

Sleep Deprivation and Brain Cells

Working During Sickness

Have you ever thought that you might be harming your brain by putting too much pressure on it during a stressful time? Yes, this is true and happens to people who are constantly living stressful life. Taking too much stress can make you ill, and if you keep on going with your everyday jobs, the brain’s efficiency is sure to suffer. When you are sick, your body and brain are already working a lot to fight the virus, and exerting yourself in such circumstances can worsen things. So make sure to take a pause, rest, and unwind.

Lack of Social Interaction

Loneliness can take a toll on your mental health and damage your brain. Researchers have found a connection between loneliness and a heightened risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, confirming how cutting off from everyone and living a lonely life may not be healthy for brain health. Socializing and spending time with others, on the other hand, can greatly benefit mental and brain health.[5]

Stimulating Thoughts

According to research, constant pessimism can significantly raise your risk of experiencing dementia. People with a negative thinking pattern tend to suffer from much more memory and cognitive issues than those who are generally optimistic about life. So the next time you feel negative thoughts racing through your mind, try breaking the cycle to protect your brain.

The Bottom Line: Save Your Brain!

The brain is indeed a delicate organ, and it’s high time you started taking care of it to stop unnecessarily killing your brain cells. Even if you have been doing many things mentioned in the list, chances are you are not likely to suffer any major changes in brain function, assuming you stop soon enough. You still have plenty of time to pay attention to your brain and allow it to rejuvenate and heal itself.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can food kill brain cells?

The use of certain foods has been associated with damage to the brain cells. These foods include sugary drinks, refined carbs, foods high in trans fat, alcohol, highly processed food, and fish with high levels of mercury.

Can I increase my brain cells?

There are plenty of ways to increase brain cells. The most basic ones include eating a healthy diet rich in fatty fish, turmeric, pumpkin seeds, blueberries, nuts, and broccoli. Make sure to exercise daily, sleep properly, and take time to socialize and improve your mental health.

Does holding your breath kill brain cells?

While it’s absolutely safe to hold your breath for a minute or two, doing it for too long can deprive the brain cells of oxygen and may lead to a certain degree of damage.

Can brain cells regenerate?

Yes, the human brain is highly adaptable and possesses the ability to regenerate its cells through a process called neurogenesis. However, keep in mind that not all types of brain damage are reversible, and some of them may lead to permanent implications.


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