Learning Slows Physical Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease

Lifelong LearningAlzheimer’s disease affects more than 4.5 million adults in the US today. To help understand the progressive neurodegenerative disorder, special mice have been bred to develop the brain lesions associated with the disease. Using these mice, researchers at UC Irvine published some promising results in the Jan. 24 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Here are some highlights from the coverage in Science Daily:

Learning appears to slow the development of two brain lesions that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists at UC Irvine have discovered. The finding suggests that the elderly, by keeping their minds active, can help delay the onset of this degenerative disease.

This study with genetically modified mice is the first to show that short but repeated learning sessions can slow a process known for causing the protein beta amyloid to clump in the brain and form plaques, which disrupt communication between cells and lead to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Learning also was found to slow the buildup of hyperphosphorylated-tau, a protein in the brain that can lead to the development of tangles, the other signature lesion of the disease. Scientists say these findings have large implications for the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, as it is already known that highly educated individuals are less likely to develop the disease than people with less education.

In this study, Lauren Billings, Kim Green, James McGaugh, and Frank LaFerla compared groups of the disease-prone mice. One group got regular training (or learning) in a water maze every three months from 2 to 18 months of age, while the other groups just had a single learning experience. When the skills and brains of the groups were compared at each point, the group that trained more (started at 2 months and continued through 12 months of age) performed better and had less plaques and tangles in their brain tissue. At 12 months, the mice that had been learning regularly showed 60% less plaques and tangles. And those that didn’t start learning until 15 months or later, looked the same as the unlearned mice in both cognitively and physically.

“We were surprised this mild learning had such big effects at reducing Alzheimer’s disease pathology and cognitive decline, but the effects were not strong enough to overcome later and more severe pathology,” Green said. “We are now investigating if more frequent and vigorous learning will have bigger and longer benefits to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Take home points:

  • Challenge yourself to lifelong learning
  • Learning means taking on new things that may be difficult at first
  • Start learning as early as possible and continue regularly for as long as possible
  • Maintain Your Brain: combine mental stimulation with physical exercise, good nutrition, and a stress management program

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