Your Brain: Use it or Lose it

Thursday, 07 Mar 2013 12:18 PM

By Nick Tate

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Learn new things. Stay mentally and physically active. Socialize. These activities may be your best hedge against developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research.

In a new study published online in the journal Neuron, brain scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Researchers provide the first measurable scientific evidence that prolonged and intensive stimulation —especially regular exposure to new activities — delays one of the key negative factors in Alzheimer's.

The study — led by Dennis Selkoe, M.D., co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases in the BWH Department of Neurology — tracked the brain activity of mice to determine how environmental factors influence the disease.
The results showed mice that were continually exposed to “an enriched environment” and “new and activities” that challenged them to learn, stay active, and interact socially experienced changes in their brains that activated certain adrenalin-related brain functions that kept their memories and cognitive ability intact.
Specifically, those changes appeared to prevent the development of amyloid beta proteins in the brain — hallmark features that lead to the distinctive dementia and memory loss seen in Alzheimer’s patients.
Although the study involved mice, the researchers believe the mechanisms are the same in humans.
"This part of our work suggests that prolonged exposure to a richer, more novel environment beginning even in middle age might help protect the hippocampus from the bad effects of amyloid beta, which builds up to toxic levels in 100 percent of Alzheimer patients," said Dr. Selkoe.
"This work helps provide a molecular mechanism for why a richer environment can help lessen the memory-eroding effects of the build-up of amyloid beta protein with age. They point to basic scientific reasons for the apparent lessening of AD risk in people with cognitively richer and more complex experiences during life."
Alzheimer's disease occurs when a amyloid plaques accumulate in the brain, blocking nerve cells from properly communicating with one another and leading to an erosion of mental processes, memory, attention, and the ability to learn, understand, and process information.
The new study showed that exposing the brain to novel activities provided greater protection against Alzheimer's disease than just aerobic exercise.

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