A new University of British Columbia study identifies an important molecular change that occurs in the brain when we learn and remember.
Published this month in Nature Neuroscience, the research shows that learning stimulates our brain cells in a manner that causes a small fatty acid to attach to delta-catenin, a protein in the brain. This biochemical modification is essential in producing the changes in brain cell connectivity associated with learning, the study finds.
In animal models, the scientists found almost twice the amount of modified delta-catenin in the brain after learning about new environments. While delta-catenin has previously been linked to learning, this study is the first to describe the protein’s role in the molecular mechanism behind memory formation.
“More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases,” says co-author Shernaz Bamji, an associate professor in UBC’s Life Sciences Institute.
It may also provide an explanation for some mental disabilities, the researchers say. People born without the gene have a severe form of mental retardation called Cri-du-chat syndrome, a rare genetic disorder named for the high-pitched cat-like cry of affected infants. Disruption of the delta-catenin gene has also been observed in some patients with schizophrenia.
“Brain activity can change both the structure of this protein, as well as its function,” says Stefano Brigidi, first author of the article and a PhD candidate Bamji’s laboratory. “When we introduced a mutation that blocked the biochemical modification that occurs in healthy subjects, we abolished the structural changes in brain’s cells that are known to be important for memory formation.”
According to the researchers, more work is needed to fully establish the importance of delta-catenin in building the brain connectivity behind learning and memory. Disruptions to these nerve cell connections are also believed to cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington disease. Understanding the biochemical processes that are important for maintaining these connections may help address the abnormalities in nerve cells that occur in these disease states.
An Amazing Village Designed Just For People With Dementia
Centuries after Shakespeare wrote about King Lear’s symptoms, there’s still no perfect way to care for sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s. In the Netherlands, however, a radical idea is being tested: Self-contained “villages” where people with dementia shop, cook, and live together—safely.
We, as a population, are aging rapidly. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors today dies with dementia. The process of finding—and paying for—long-term care can be very confusing, unfortunately, and difficult for both loved ones and patients. Most caretakers are underpaid, overworked, and must drive far distances to their jobs—giving away some 17 billion unpaid hours of care a year. And it’s just going to get worse: Alzheimer’s has increased by an incredible 68 percent since 2000, and the cost of caring for sufferers will increase from $203 billion last year to $1.2 trillion by 2050.
In short, we’re not prepared for the future that awaits us—financially, infrastructurally, or even socially. But in the small town of Weesp, in Holland—that bastion of social progressivism—at a dementia-focused living center called De Hogeweyk, aka Dementiavillage, the relationship between patients and their care is serving as a model for the rest of the world.
Fruit fly larval brain
With over 100 billion neurons, humans are capable of impossibly intricate behaviors. Fruit flies, on the other hand, have 100,000 neurons—a mere 0.0001% of what we possess. Robot makers turn to fruit flies to understand how a system with “low computational power” can execute sophisticated “commands,” such as honing in on a food source in a chaotic environment. Using their antennae, fruit flies detect odors arising from food, but the odor plume is chaotically dispersed by wind. How do flies know precisely where to land? Researchers at the University of Washington demonstrated that after sensing an odor, fruit flies visually search for round, high-contrast objects as potential odor sources. If it’s inedible, flies move on to the next object. Understanding how fruit flies use these simple cues could aid in designing programs for controlling robots of the future.
Image by Christian Klämbt, University of Muenster, Germany.
“When you want a science fiction movie adapted into a novel that might be better than the original source material, you don’t fuck around. You speed dial Alan Dean Foster and send the check pronto.” The lost art of movie novelization. (Among the stranger films to become novels: Taxi Driver, Young Frankenstein, Deep Throat.)
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A coronary aneurysm is an abnormal ballooning of a portion of the coronary artery and a potential consequence of Kawasaki disease. If untreated, it may result in irreversible heart damage and death. This angiography of an 18-year-old patient reveals a massive aneurysm in the right coronary artery compared to the normal left. Image courtesy of Tomio Kobayashi, Gunma University School of Medicine, Japan.
Study Evaluates Role of Infliximab in Treating Kawasaki Disease
Antibody treatment helps children with dangerous heart disorder
Kawasaki Disease (KD) is a severe childhood disease that many parents, even some doctors, mistake for an inconsequential viral infection. If not diagnosed or treated in time, it can lead to irreversible heart damage.
Signs of KD include prolonged fever associated with rash, red eyes, mouth, lips and tongue, and swollen hands and feet with peeling skin. The disease causes damage to the coronary arteries in a quarter of untreated children and may lead to serious heart problems in early adulthood. There is no diagnostic test for Kawasaki disease, and current treatment fails to prevent coronary artery damage in at least one in 10 to 20 children and death in one in 1,000 children.
Between 10 and 20 percent of patients with KD experience fever relapse following the standard therapy with a single infusion of intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) and aspirin. It is known that IVIG resistance increases the risk of heart damage, most commonly a ballooning of the coronary arteries called aneurysms. These children require additional therapy to interrupt the inflammatory process that can lead to damage of the coronary arteries.
A study led by physicians at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego looked at intensification of initial therapy for all children with KD in order to prevent IVIG-resistance and associated coronary artery abnormalities by assessing the addition of the medication infliximab to current standard therapy. The results of their study will be published in the February 24, 2014 online issue of the medical journal Lancet.