Molecular Psychiatry (2013) 18, 404–416; doi:10.1038/mp.2013.8; published online 26 February 2013

In vivo imaging of adult human hippocampal neurogenesis: progress, pitfalls and promise

N F Ho1,2,7, J M Hooker3,7, A Sahay4,5,6,7, D J Holt1,2,7 and J L Roffman1,2,7

  1. 1Department of Psychiatry, Schizophrenia Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
  2. 2Psychiatric Neuroscience Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA
  3. 3Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA
  4. 4Center for Regenerative Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
  5. 5Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
  6. 6Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Boston, MA, USA
  7. 7Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

Correspondence: Dr NF Ho, Schizophrenia and Psychiatric Neuroscience Research Programs, 149 Thirteenth Street, Suite 2611, Charlestown, MA 02129, USA. E-mail:

Received 8 March 2012; Revised 20 October 2012; Accepted 2 January 2013
Advance online publication 26 February 2013



New neurons are produced within the hippocampus of the mammalian brain throughout life. Evidence from animal studies has suggested that the function of these adult-born neurons is linked to cognition and emotion. Until we are able to detect and measure levels of adult neurogenesis in living human brains—a formidable challenge for now—we cannot establish its functional importance in human health, disease and new treatment development. Current non-invasive neuroimaging modalities can provide live snapshots of the brain’s structure, chemistry, activity and connectivity. This review explores whether existing macroscopic imaging methods can be used to understand the microscopic dynamics of adult hippocampal neurogenesis in living individuals. We discuss recent studies that have found correlations between neuroimaging measures of human hippocampal biology and levels of pro- or anti-neurogenic stimuli, weigh whether these correlations reflect changes in adult neurogenesis, detail the conceptual and technical limitations of these studies and elaborate on what will be needed to validate in vivo neuroimaging measures of adult neurogenesis for future investigations.


Adult human hippocampal neurogenesis; in vivo neuroimaging