Study Finds Learning Slows Alzheimer’s

According to UCI researchers, keeping the mind active delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and slows the progression of the brain lesions that trigger this degenerative disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that affects 4.5 million adults in the United States. This progressive disease is the third-leading cause of death, following cancer and heart disease.
Statistics indicate that five percent of people older than the age of 65 possess the disease and up to one-half of people are affected by the time they reach the age of 80, which could, in turn, increase the number of affected individuals to 20 million by the year 2050.
The researchers of this study, professors of neurobiology and behavior, Frank LaFerla and James McGaugh, and postdoctoral researchers Kim Green and Lauren Billings studied hundreds of genetically modified mice that are between the ages of two to 18 months and used worldwide for similar Alzheimer’s studies. These mice were bred to specifically develop the plaques and tangles that are found within the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
From their tests, the scientists found that brief but repeated learning sessions can delay the buildup of plaque in the brain, which stems from protein beta amyloid clumping and interferes with normal cell-to-cell communication. The process of learning also prevents tangles due to the clumping of hyperphosphorylated-tau proteins.
Although it is already known that more educated individuals are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s in comparison to less educated individuals, this study further supports that learning offsets the physiological complications within the brain that lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
‘This study shows learning can delay the progression of Alzheimer’s neuropathology in mice genetically engineered to develop this insidious disorder, and learning also delays the cognitive decline,’ said professor of neurobiology and behavior and co-author of the study, Frank LaFerla in a Jan. 23 press release. ‘These remarkable findings suggest stimulating the mind with activities such as reading books or completing crossword puzzles may help delay and/or prevent Alzheimer’s disease in senior citizens.’
Mice underwent various learning processes four times a day for one week at two, six, nine, 12, 15 and 18 months of age. The mice in one group learned to swim until they discovered a submerged platform on which to stand in a round tank of water. In contrast, a group of untrained mice swam in the tank of water for just one session. Subsequently, both groups underwent the testing of their memory and learning skills and were examined for potential plaques and tangles within their brains.
Results indicate that mice aged up to 12 months from the trained group has fewer brain lesions and better memory and learning skills. They remembered the location of the escape platform better than mice from the untrained group. At 12 months of age, the trained mice developed 60 percent fewer plaques and tangles than unlearned mice. By 15 months of age, the learned mice compared identically to the physical and cognitive statures of the unlearned mice.
‘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 in a Jan. 23 press release. ‘We are now investigating if more frequent and vigorous learning will have bigger and longer benefits to Alzheimer’s disease.’
The full study may be found in the Jan. 24 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.