Each week I scan different science reports from around the world, which continue to supplement our understanding of how our brain works. Sometimes one report will leap out from the page when I read it, as it seems to herald a particularly important finding and this week I came across one such report.
The key to maintaining our ability to learn new skills and lay down memory, as we get older is dependent in part in our ability to produce new brain cells. This is neurogenesis, one component of what makes our brain “plastic”. The production of new baby brain cells occurs in what is called the dentate gyrus, one region of the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain, associated with learning and memory. However many of the new cells produced don’t necessarily survive to get fully incorporated into our brain.
Think of it in the same way as when turtle hatchlings are released into the ocean. Only a very small percentage actually survive and grow to adulthood. It’s the same with our brain cells. It takes several weeks for new brain cells to fully mature and most of them die off. Plus, the ability for our new brain cells to survive declines, as we get older. So researchers have been looking to identify compounds, which could enhance our newborn brain cells survival.
The results of the recent study could prove to be a breakthrough for potential treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. A team of researchers at the University of Texas Dallas have found a compound which (at least for rodents) has been shown to increase survival rates of newly formed brain cells and by helping the rats to form new memories, reverse their memory loss.
The compound (given the really sexy name of P7C3) was one of over 1000 molecules investigated by the team. Using genetically engineered mice that lacked a gene needed to allow newborn brain cells to survive, the addition of the P7C3 reduced the expected newborn brain cell death rate.
The next step of the study then looked at whether the compound could slow down age related brain cell death and cognitive decline. Apparently they used rats for this part of the test because it involved a water maze test, which the genetically engineered mice couldn’t do because they couldn’t swim. (This conjures up images of mice wearing water wings. But I digress.) The P7C3 was given on a daily basis to elderly rats with memory problems for two months and they were then subjected to the water maze task. The rats that received the P7C3 performed significantly better than the rats that had not received it. Moreover it was found that the rats given the P7C3 had three times higher than the normal level of newborn brain cells in the dentate gyrus of their hippocampus.
The conclusion was that the P7C3 enhanced new brain cell formation as well as increasing their rate of survival.
This exciting finding indicates that it may be possible in the future to be able to use compounds such as this in humans, because it can be given orally, can cross the blood brain barrier, and can produce long lasting effects for preserving memory and enhancing new brain cell survival. And the compound appears to be safe.
Obviously this is a long way off from being a substance suitable to use in humans, but it heralds an exciting development that we may have treatments in the future that could potentially address some of the core problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease where brain cell death is a marked feature.
And the team have already found that a derivative of the P7C3 called A20 appears to have an even greater neuro protective effect. A20 is apparently 300 times more potent than another compound, which is currently being used in clinical trials as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. The team are now looking to work out how these compounds, P7C3 and A20 produce their effect. So watch this space.
Reference: Pieper AA, Xie S, Capota E, Estill SJ, Zhong J, Long JM, Becker GL, Huntington P, Goldman SE, Shen CH, Capota M, Britt JK, Kotti T, Ure K, Brat DJ, Williams NS, MacMillan KS, Naidoo J, Melito L, Hsieh J, Brabander JD, Ready JM, McKnight SL. Discovery of a Pro-neurogenic, Neuroprotective Chemical. Cell, July 8, 2010 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.06.018