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Greater understanding of cognitive decline

March 2019

Doctor looking at brain scans
New results are coming in all the time

Good seems our brains can continue to make new neurons even as we reach our twilight years.

Neurons are incredibly important. They are specialised cells designed to transmit information to various vital parts of our body including nerve cells and muscles. They are the basic working unit of the brain and we have millions of them.

The neurons in the hippocampus area of our brain are as important as you can get. The hippocampus stores and retrieves human memories; it is the part of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s.

Now a new study, just published in Nature Medicine, indicates that the human brain can in fact produce new cells even as we get a lot older. This is in contrast to many beliefs that humans are given a finite number of brain cells which decline as we age.

It is a difficult area to study, but a team of Spanish scientists has been working with post-mortem tissue from adults whose brains were healthy when they died. The ages of the adults were between 43 and 87 and their results showed that there were newly formed neurones in every brain, regardless of age.

They did find a reduction in the production with age but there were also clear indications of fresh neurones as well. Interestingly, in similar studies undertaken in the brain tissue taken from adults already identified as suffering from Alzheimer’s, while the number of neurones fell, they still also identified that new neurones had been formed.

Scientists are now looking at how this can be used to help identify Alzheimer’s at early stages; and also how treatments that boost brain cell production could be incorporated.

While it has been recognised for some time that “exercising” the brain, learning new skills, languages, music and so on, may help to slow down age related cognitive decline, more recently it has been accepted that exercise can help release neurotransmitters and hormones useful to help promote the growth of new brain cells. Now it seems this could work at any age.

Another development has come from research at the University of California, Berkeley, which has concluded that mental decline may also be caused by molecules leaking into the brain. Blood vessels in the brain are different from those in the rest of our bodies and they protect the brain by restricting the flow of larger, potentially damaging molecules into the area; allowing only nutrients, oxygen and some drugs to enter the brain.

Scans of different aged people taken during this research showed that the barrier restricting damaging molecules breaks down with age, allowing leaking into the brain. The research was led by Professor Daniela Kaurfer who said that experimentation with young mice who had their brains altered to allow leaks in the brain blood barriers showed many signs of ageing. Already she says there is a chemical that has been found to stop inflammation to the brain caused by a leak in the blood barrier.

In yet another study, at the University of Toronto, researchers have found they can reverse cognitive decline in mice by targeting the somatostatin-positive neurons. These neurons are involved in coding information and are often the first to fail. Prof Etienne Sibille from the University said they had identified a chemical that amplifies the signal from these failing neurons; results have already shown that older mice who could not find their way around mazes were able to do this after they were given the chemical.

After so many years of research and frustration, now new information and breakthroughs are beginning to come in. It must only be a matter of time now before reliable ways to identify the onset of Alzheimer’s at an early stage, and for treatments that really can halt and even reverse the condition, will be found.

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