In a new study, researchers found that calcium levels in specific cells in the brain play a key role in age-related memory loss.
The finding helps explain how and why cognitive functions such as memory and learning become impaired with age.
The research was conducted by a team from the University of Leicester.
As we get older, our memory starts to fail and it becomes harder to learn new things.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that this is caused by brain cells gradually dying off but that doesn’t happen. So what causes age-related cognitive impairment?
The answer lies in synapses, the electro-chemical connections between neurons that use neurotransmitters to create the web of functions within the central nervous system.
In the study, the team examined whether calcium levels in the hippocampus, part of the brain necessary for learning and memory, might play a role.
Previous research in this area has concentrated on post-synaptic cells—the ones which receive neurotransmitters—simply because measuring calcium levels in pre-synaptic cells is very difficult.
The current team developed a special strain of mice which express a calcium-sensing fluorescent protein within the pre-synaptic parts of a brain region called hippocampus.
This region plays a big role in learning and memory functions.
The research used mazes and object recognition tests to study the cognitive functions of mice at ages of 6, 12, 18 and 24 months, and found a clear correlation between cognitive ability and pre-synaptic calcium levels.
The team raised the level of intracellular pre-synaptic calcium in the brains of young mice and found they behaved like the older mice.
The reverse is also true: lowering intracellular calcium in old mouse brains rejuvenates their synapses—which obviously has enormous potential significance for age-related health issues in humans.
One author of the study is Professor Nick Hartell from the University of Leicester’s Department of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Behaviour.
The study is published in Aging Cell.
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