Everyone experiences some memory loss as they get older; it’s a natural consequence of aging. However, many studies have shown that it’s possible to limit this memory loss through things like lifestyle and diet modification. A new study from the University of Cambridge is different. Rather than focusing on lifestyle modifications, the researchers targeted age-related memory loss issues at the genetic level.
The study, which involved researchers from both the University of Cambridge and the University of Leeds, involved reversing the age-related memory loss experienced in mice, paving the way for similar treatments in humans. The research comes amid growing calls for ways to prevent and treat dementia, a problem expected to become a major public health issue as populations live to older ages.
The brain contains a type of “scaffolding” around nerve cells, which changes over time, contributing to the memory loss associated with older age. Key to addressing this issue may be a type of “cartilage-like structures” called perineuronal nets (PNNs) that are thought to play a role in the brain’s ability to adapt and learn new things — something referred to as neuroplasticity.
According to the researchers, PNNs primarily work by controlling neuroplasticity, turning off the “enhanced plasticity” that exists in childhood once the brain reaches its optimal state. Though a degree of neuroplasticity remains in adulthood, it isn’t quite the same as what you experienced at, say, age 10.
There’s a benefit to this — the decrease in neuroplasticity enables the brain to run more efficiently, but there’s a cost. Over time, you’ll start to experience memory loss and more trouble learning, something many people have sought to reduce or prevent using nootropics.
The researchers addressed this by using a virus that tweaked compounds found in PNNs, ones that are related to enhanced neuroplasticity. By doing this, the researchers found that old mice experienced “completely restored memory,” at least when it came to mazes.
A drug licensed for use with humans already exists that is taken orally to inhibit PNNs, leading to restored memory in rodents. The researchers are looking into whether the same drug could be used to help treat Alzheimer’s disease, though it’s too early to say for sure.