Tweaking Just a Single Gene Can Restore Brain Plasticity

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-30 10:11

We may grow old, but our brains don't have to.



Kids are able to learn languages and other skills easily while young because of a little thing called brain plasticity. As we grow older, our brains lose more and more of their plasticity. This means that our brains also lose more and more of their ability to adapt to changes, learn new things, and recover from injury. This is also why it's becomes more difficult for us to learn a new language or master a new musical instrument when we're older.


Loss of plasticity in the brain also contributes to declining cognitive functions. However, researchers found that targeting just one gene can restore some of the brain's plasticity. The findings of the research can eventually help efforts in fighting cognitive decline due to age. So, the findings probably won't help us master a second, third, or seventh language more easily, at least not any time soon. However, it has the potential to help us avoid a certain degree of cognitive decline when we're older.


Can Old Mice Learn New Tricks?

The way we process visual information changes as we age.



We used to think that brains completely stop changing once we reach adulthood. Old dogs and new tricks, and all that. However, scientists have discovered that this isn't actually true. For example, there have been studies that have uncovered ways that we can manipulate brain plasticity. One study discovered that a gene called Nogo Receptor I has a big role in the maturation of the brain. Another study showed how the transplant of a particular embryonic neuron restored youthfulness in the brains of mice.


However, the adaptability and plasticity of our brains do decrease as we age. As it turns out, the decline isn't unstoppable. This latest study discovered that tweaking a gene called Arc can restore the plasticity in the visual cortex—the brain region that processes visual information—of mice.


Researchers discovered that mice that lacked the Arc gene had visual cortices that were unable to adapt to changes or new experiences. There was a parallel between the Arc gene and visual plasticity—a parallel that peaks in the mice's teenage years and falls by the time middle age rolls around. If the Arc gene remains available for the middle-aged mice, the window of plasticity is extended as well.


Brain Plasticity in Mice vs in Humans

If scientists can restore brain plasticity in mice, can they do the same for humans?


Here's a particularly interesting part of the experiment: what did researchers use to deliver the Arc gene to older mice with declining plasticity? Viruses, of course. The overexpression of the Arc gene allowed the older mice to react to changes in visual stimulation the way younger mice do.


So far, the researchers only know that the Arc gene is able to restore plasticity in the brain. However, they have yet to figure out how this works. There's somewhat of a general understanding about how plasticity declines with age, but these findings now give scientists new insights into cognitive decline due to age.


It's important to note that the researchers carried out their experiments on mice. Another thing that researchers would have to figure out is how the Arc gene can also restore youthful brain plasticity in humans.

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