Alzheimer's, Obesity, Emotions, and More: Five New Things to Know about Your Brain

brain_art.jpgStudy of the brain often seems like such a “meta” proposition. We use our brains to study, so when people study the brain, they are using what they are studying to study what they are studying. Despite the philosophical conundrum, neurological research continues to open new horizons.

For instance, consider new findings about the connection between our brains and our digestive system. Researchers are also delving into the connection between our skin and our brain. This week we found five interesting pieces of research on the brain. You’ll be amazed...and often encouraged.

Algal blooms may provide insights to Alzheimer's.

Amyloid protein clumps and neural fiber tangles have been identified in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimers, Parkinsons Disease and ALS. Evidence shows that an amino acid known as L-BMAA—an amino acid that is very plentiful in algal blooms—may be responsible for causing amyloid protein clumps. Researchers from the Institute for EthnoMedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, tested this theory on vervet monkeys. Not only did the results show that L-BMAA was linked to the presence of the amyloids, it also showed that taking a supplemental form of the amino acid L-serine significantly reduced the effects of L-BMAA. In other words, L-serine may offer protection against Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s and ALS. Clinical trials for ALS are now underway. Read the synopsis by Melissa Healy in the LA Times and read the full study in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.


The link between bad memory and obesity

We know that obesity can have numerous negative effects on our organs, but researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham are unlocking the connection between obesity and memory. The researchers studied four specific memory-related genes in obesity-induced mice over the course of 20 weeks. Within 13 weeks, the mice showed a decline in their ability to find objects (a common test used for testing memory in mice). The mice also showed a decline in gene expression related to four genes that are related to memory. One of these genes (Sirt1) lose its ability to produce a protein that is active when neurons are working. In other words, obesity slowed down neurochemical processes in the brain related to memory. Read the synopsis by Jeff Hansen in UAB News and read the full study in the Journal of Neuroscience.


Depression may have a mother-to-daughter connection

Researchers are confident that depression has a hereditary link, but scientists at University of California San Francisco have homed in on a new genetic aspect of this disease. A small study of 35 families showed similarities between the corticolimbic system in female family members, and the researchers believe this could indicate transmission of mood patterns from mother to daughter. (The corticolimbic system is responsible for the regulations of our emotions.) The researchers point out that female associated genes are not the sole source of depression: "Many factors play a role in depression – genes that are not inherited from the mother, social environment and life experiences, to name only three. Mother-daughter transmission is just one piece of it.” Read the synopsis by Steve Tokar on the UCSF site.


A protein that can prevent brain cell death?

Most of our cells are constantly dividing and dying off. Occasionally something called a methyl group attaches to our cells marking them for destruction (something called autophagy), which is usually not a problem because those methyl groups get destroyed during the cell division process. However, brain cells, scientists believe, don’t divide, meaning that they are finite, posing a problem in the presence of an attached methyl group. Scientists at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Missouri, recently identified a protein called Tet3FL that they think may be responsible for removing methyl groups from cells. In other words, researchers think that they may have identified a protein that can prevent brain cells from being destroyed by biochemical processes. Read the synopsis from the Van Andel Institute and read the whole study here.


Discoveries about pressure release at the cellular level may help reduce brain damage from strokes

Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute are learning much more about the mechanisms behind the regulation of water in our cells. Previous research has shown that something called the volume-regulated anion channel (VRAC) in our cells keeps them from over-swelling due to water intake. The Scripps team discovered that five different proteins are responsible for the regulation of VRAC. This is important because VRAC shows potential links to stroke-induced brain damage, Type 1 diabetes, immune deficiency, and cancer treatment resistance. Read the synopsis of the study via the Scripps Research Institute.  

PHOTO via Creative Commons Flickr


See all stories by Damon Cory-Watson


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