Researchers, including those of Indian-origin, have found that increasing a crucial cholesterol-binding membrane protein in nerve cells within the brain can improve learning and memory in aged mice.
“This is a novel strategy for treating neurodegenerative diseases, and it underscores the importance of brain cholesterol,” said Chitra Mandyam, associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and co-first author of the study with Jan M Schilling of University of California San Diego and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System (VA).
“By bringing back this protein, you’re actually bringing cholesterol back to the cell membrane, which is very important for forming new synaptic contacts,” said senior author Brian Head, a research scientist with the VA and associate professor at UC San Diego.
The study focuses on a specific membrane protein called caveolin-1 (Cav-1) and expands scientists’ understanding of neuroplasticity, the ability of neural pathways to grow in response to new stimuli.
Researchers delivered Cav-1 directly into a region of the brain known as the hippocampus in adult and “aged” mice. The hippocampus is a structure thought to participate in the formation of contextual memories.
In addition to improved neuron growth, treated mice demonstrated better retrieval of contextual memories – they froze in place, an indication of fear, when placed in a location where they’d once received small electric shocks.
Mandyam and Head believe that this type of gene therapy may be a path toward treating age-related memory loss.
The researchers are now testing this gene therapy in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease and expanding it to possibly treat injuries such as spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury.
The other study authors included Piyush M Patel and Hemal H Patel of UC San Diego and the VA.
The study was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.