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Friday, 2 April, 1999, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Learning 'protects the brain'
17.19 01-04-99 child ac
Early learning could beat dementia in old age
A stimulating environment that encourages learning could help children avoid developing degenerative brain diseases in later life, scientists say.

Researchers believe they have compelling evidence that children who grow up in such an environment are less likely to get diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Laboratory rat
The researchers put rats in stimulating environments
Early exposure to learning may also increase the body's ability to repair damaged brain cells, the study found.

Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and the University of Auckland in New Zealand drew their conclusions from experiments conducted on laboratory rats.

They found that the rats lost 45% fewer brain cells to ageing if they were given rubber balls, running wheels and tunnels to play with and if they got special treats such as corn chips.

Some of the active rats also received a brain stimulant called kainic acid.

They showed almost complete protection from brain cell loss.

An 'enriched environment'

Director of Jefferson Medical College's Central Nervous System Gene Therapy Centre, Dr Matthew During, said: "We were hoping to get some scientific underpinnings to the age-old maxim 'use it or lose it'."

"An enriched environment switched on genes in the brain, and we believe by that mechanism the brain becomes super-resilient, resistant to ageing and diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and traumatic brain injury."

He added: "There haven't been many careful studies done in the lab to show if actively using your brain enhances your ability to stay healthy, and what mechanisms might be involved in protecting the brain.

"We asked what that [stimulating environment] would do to cognitive function, particularly in preventing brain cell death and symptoms of Alzheimer's and other diseases resulting in brain degeneration."

However, publishing their findings in the journal Nature Medicine, the authors said further research is necessary to determine exactly what about the environment helped stimulate brain-protecting genes.

See also:

16 Feb 99 | Health
Drive to beat Alzheimer's Disease
05 Mar 99 | Health
Alzheimer's drug success
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