Refurbishing the Brain, Making Humans Smarter and Happier
“I think we’re getting closer to harnessing neurogenesis to improve cognition and mood in humans. This research may also help explain a bit of a mystery in the field, which we still don’t understand, regarding how the hippocampus can be involved with both cognition – which is its classic function – and in mood and anxiety-related functions. Perhaps the fact that pattern separation affects both the cognitive and mood domains is the beginning of an answer to that paradox,” said Dr. Hen. _StemCellsRené Hen, PhD, professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, has discovered a possible escape hatch by which some members of society might escape the Idiocracy. It involves the use of chemicals called "BAX inhibitors." Particular members of that class of drugs have the potential to preserve newborn stem cells in the brain's hippocampus. And doing that could make all the difference in the course of a person's life success and happiness.
After boosting the number of neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory and mood, the researchers tested the mice in both learning and mood-related tasks and looked for changes in behavior. The researchers found specific effects on learning tasks that involve a process called pattern separation, which is the ability to distinguish between similar places, events and experiences.This is all related to the length of time required before antidepressants are able to bring about a full "antidepressive response." The full effect of modern antidepressants requires new stem cell production in the hippocampus -- but that takes time to achieve. Drugs capable of rapid and prolonged increases of hippocampal stem cells could conceivably keep anxiety and depression at bay, while improving a person's cognitive capacity.
“This process is crucial for learning because it enables us to know whether something is familiar or novel,” said Dr. Hen. “If it is familiar, you move on to the next bit of information; if it’s novel, you want to be able to recognize that it’s new and give it meaning. These mice, with just more adult-born neurons, and no other changes in the brain, basically learn better in tasks where they have to discriminate between similar contexts.”
Earlier strategies for manipulating neurogenesis, according to the investigators, were broader and less specific. “In addition to stimulating neurogenesis, these earlier methods exerted many other effects on the brain. As a result, you never knew with these older manipulations what’s due to neurogenesis, or what’s due to the other effects that these manipulations cause, and, indeed, what we find is that when you stimulate just adult neurogenesis, you actually get a subtle effect. Unlike broader manipulations, it does not affect all forms of learning, it’s very specific to tasks that require pattern separation,” said Dr. Hen.
Pattern separation is not only important for learning; it may also be important for anxiety disorders, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder. People with PTSD, say the researchers, have a more generalized fear response, so that when they are placed in a situation that reminds them of even one aspect of their trauma, they frequently have a full fear response.
...The researchers say that the genetic strategy used to stimulate neurogenesis in their experiments can be mimicked pharmacologically, potentially leading to the development of new drugs to reverse pattern separation deficits. One such class of drugs the investigators are currently testing – BAX inhibitors – works by blocking cell death.
“These drugs are basically doing the same thing that we did with our genetic manipulation-namely, increasing the survival of the young neurons which normally undergo a process of cell death that eliminates at least half of these neurons. Now instead of dying, the neurons will go on to survive,” said Dr. Sahay.
Some BAX inhibitors have been developed for stroke research, where the goal has also been to prevent neurons from dying. The Columbia researchers plan to begin testing the BAX inhibitors in mice shortly. And if they produce cognitive benefits, the testing will be extended to clinical trials to determine if there’s also a beneficial effect in humans. _StemCells
No, this is not NZT. As mentioned here previously, a drug that could achieve the effect of the fictional NZT would have to stimulate changes in gene expression on multiple levels, and across a wide range of brain centers.
Smart drugs alone will not achieve the goal of smarter, better-rounded, and happier humans. Educational and environmental interventions would also be necessary, to blunt the Idiocratic brainwashing effect of modern media, modern academia, and modern popular culture, while allowing the brain to develop newer, more functional pathways.
Realistically, it will take 15 years at the earliest to see the early promise of this type of medication come to fulfillment. But a single ray of hope in the distance is worth a lot to a person immersed in the modern rush to Idiocracy.
More 5April2001: An example of rapid brain plasticity in human adults
The PNAS Abstract from the actual study
Previously published at Al Fin
As noted here before, improved neurogenesis in the hippocampus is associated with antidepressant and anti-anxiety behaviours in animal studies -- and probably in humans. It does no good to live longer with younger brains if we are unable to enjoy our added time and brainpower.
Labels: brain rejuvenation