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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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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