Use it or lose may be a truism when it comes to protecting the brain against lead exposure. Neuroscientists at Jefferson Medical College have found that a mentally stimulating, enriched environment helped protect rats from the potentially damaging effects of lead poisoning.
Jay Schneider, Ph.D., professor of pathology, anatomy and cell biology and neurology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and his colleagues compared groups of rats given lead-laced water for several weeks in two different environments. They found both a better ability to learn and higher levels of various brain chemicals important to brain cell health in the brains of rats in the enriched, stimulating environment than in the animals that were isolated and exposed to lead. In many cases, the lead-exposed animals in the stimulating environment did just as well as those animals that weren't exposed to lead.
"Behaviorally, being in an enriched environment seemed to help protect their brains," says Dr. Schneider.
Dr. Schneider and colleagues at the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities in Staten Island report their results March 30 in the journal Brain Research.
In the study, the researchers compared rats that were housed alone and others that were housed eight at a time in a more stimulating, enriched environment, where they could interact and play.
One-half of the animals in the enriched environment received lead in the drinking water, and half did not. Similarly, half of the animals in the isolated environment received lead in their drinking water and half did not. After a period of time, the scientists tested the animals' ability to learn and remember with a standard test that is used for rats. "We wanted to know if being raised in this environment would lessen the effects of lead on the brain," he explains. "Animals that are exposed to lead early in life usually perform poorly."