Jefferson Scientists Find Link Between Learning And Preventing Alzheimer's

A new study suggests that a stimulating, learning environment early in life might actually help ward off neurodegenerative diseases later. The findings indicate that nurture may be more influential than nature when it comes to the brain's resilience against injury.

Researchers at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and at the University of Auckland in New Zealand found that rats living in a stimulating environment filled with running wheels, tunnels, balls and food had 45 percent less brain cell death commonly associated with normal development and aging than rats living in basic surroundings. What's more, the stimulated rats exposed to a neurotoxin were nearly completely protected from brain cell loss, unlike those in a normal environment. The scientists report their results in April in the journal Nature Medicine.

"We were hoping to get some scientific underpinnings to the age-old maxim, 'use it or lose it,'" explains neuroscientist Matthew During, M.D., director the Central Nervous System Gene Therapy Center at Jefferson and professor of neurosurgery at Jefferson Medical College. He and his colleagues wanted to see if an enriched learning environment would result in any protective effect on the brain.

Dr. During was surprised how robust the enriched rat brains were. "We showed in this study that an enriched environment switched on genes in the brain, and we believe by that mechanism the brain becomes super-resilient, resistant to aging and diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and traumatic brain injury," he says.

"There haven't been many careful studies done in the lab to show if actively using your brain enhances your ability to stay healthy, and what mechanisms might be involved in protecting the brain," he says. "We asked what that [stimulating environment] would do to cognitive function, particularly in preventing brain cell death and symptoms of Alzheim

Contact: Steve Benowitz
Thomas Jefferson University

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