- Researchers report that complex sugar molecules in the brain might affect plasticity, which is involved in learning and memory.
- During their study, the researchers changed one of the genes in mice and found that memory was degraded.
- Scientists are looking at whether they can alter these molecules to potentially work as a treatment in humans for central nervous system injuries and neurodegenerative diseases.
Scientists are looking at sugar molecules in the brain and how they could impact learning and memory, according to research presented at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2023 meeting.
Scientists completed their study on mice and hope they can use this knowledge to better understand human brain plasticity.
The findings have not been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.
Common sugars, such as those found in fruits, candies, or cakes, can bind together, forming strings of complex sugars.
When these complex sugars attach to other chemical structures, such as sulfate groups, they are called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), which have many uses within the body. These include functions such as cell growth, anticoagulation, and wound repair.
How sugars can affect the brain
Patterns of sulfation, a type of chemical modification, can change the function of GAGs.
The researchers wanted to see how changing this pattern might affect neuroplasticity in mice.
To do this, they deleted a specific gene that is important for two sulfation patterns on the GAG chondroitin sulfate.
The gene deletion changed the types of synaptic connections between neurons.
Afterward, the researchers reported, the mice could not recognize other mice they had previously met, suggesting that these structures affect social memory.
The results occurred in both young and adult mice, suggesting it is possible to manipulate or strengthen certain synaptic connections in the brain.
The researchers suggest that this knowledge might make it possible to rewire or strengthen brain connections during adolescence and adulthood.
The scientists say they hope to use this information in the future to restore or enhance memory functions in the brain.
“This is an exciting study,” said Dr. Ilan Danan, a sports neurologist and pain management specialist at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
The researchers are currently looking at if GAGs and sulfate patterns can help to improve the ability to rebuild neurons after a brain injury.
What is brain plasticity?
Brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity, is the process of structural or functional changes in the brain.
In a 2019 review, the authors defined brain plasticity as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections.”
It’s known that neural connections can change and strengthen after illness or injury. When we physically exercise, we increase the brain’s resiliency and its ability to adapt to changes in the body.
This also happens when we exercise our brains by learning and involving ourselves in a new activity that requires thinking and remembering.
How to improve brain health
Exercise is as essential to your brain as it is for other parts of your body.
“The more you care for your brain, the more resilient it becomes,” Ilan told Medical News Today. “Exercise for your brain is using it, especially when learning something new.”
“The brain plays a role throughout life. It continues to grow new networks to compensate for those injured or diseased,” he added.
It’s also possible that making certain adjustments to your diet can boost brain health.
For example, a March 2023 study published in the journal Neurology reported a link between the Mediterranean and MIND diets and a reduced number of Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles.
However, a July 2023 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed people with a family history of dementia who were cognitively impaired. It reported no significant differences in cognition after following the MIND diet for three years.
“Typically, with better nutrition, neurons work better and can restructure and add pathways,” said Karen Miller, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and geropsychologist and senior director of the Brain Wellness and Lifestyle Programs at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in California.
“Antioxidants reduce inflammation, which also improves functioning,” Miller told Medical News Today. “In our Wellness and Lifestyle Programs, we stress the Mediterranean or MIND diets, which are high in fruits and vegetables with antioxidants.”
Besides foods, you can add spices, such as turmeric, cumin, oregano, clove, and cinnamon to your meals to increase your antioxidants.
In addition to helping with brain health, a diet high in antioxidants may decrease the risk of heart disease, some types of cancer, stroke, respiratory diseases, immune deficiency, Parkinson’s disease, and other inflammatory diseases.
Rebuilding the brain after an injury
The researchers said they are currently looking at if and how GAGs work to rebuild neurons after a brain injury.
Thus far, they said they have identified specific sulfation motifs that cause receptors to cluster together on the cell’s surface and inhibit regeneration.
They are looking for ways to block this process via tools or treatments.
The researchers note that having a better understanding of this process might help them to repair damage caused be neurodegenerative diseases or strokes in the future.
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