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"Use it or lose it." The saying could apply especially to the brain when it comes to protecting against Alzheimer's disease. Previous studies have shown that keeping the mind active, exercising and social interactions may help delay the onset of dementia in Alzheimer's disease.Now, a new study led by Dennis Selkoe, MD, co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases in the BWH Department of Neurology, provides specific pre-clinical scientific evidence supporting the concept that prolonged and intensive stimulation by an enriched environment, especially regular exposure to new activities, may have beneficial effects in delaying one of the key negative factors in Alzheimer's disease.
The study will be published online on March 6, 2013 in Neuron.
Alzheimer's disease occurs when a protein called amyloid beta accumulates and forms "senile plaques" in the brain. This protein accumulation can block nerve cells in the brain from properly communicating with one another. This may gradually lead to an erosion of a person's mental processes, such as memory, attention, and the ability to learn, understand and process information.
The BWH researchers used a wild-type mouse model when evaluating how the environment might affect Alzheimer's disease. Unlike other pre-clinical models used in Alzheimer's disease research, wild-type mice tend to more closely mimic the scenario of average humans developing the disease under normal environmental conditions, rather than being strongly genetically pre-disposed to the disease.
Selkoe and his team found that prolonged exposure to an enriched environment activated certain adrenalin-related brain receptors which triggered a signaling pathway that prevented amyloid beta protein from weakening the communication between nerve cells in the brain's "memory center," the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important role in both short- and long-term memory.
The ability of an enriched, novel environment to prevent amyloid beta protein from affecting the signaling strength and communication between nerve cells was seen in both young and middle-aged wild-type mice.