You don’t need to be around adolescents very long before you realize that their brains work differently from those of adults, especially senior adults. What the youthful brain lacks in judgment and stability, however, is compensated for by its speed of learning and memory recall.
But what if, through a simple flip of a molecular switch, we seniors could have it all? That is, what if we could retain the judgment we’ve acquired through lifelong experiences while returning our brain to its youthful malleable plasticity? What if we had a youthful brain that enabled us to quickly learn new languages and tasks? One that would allow us to remember where we put the car keys?
The National Institutes of Health funded in an effort to find ways to help adults recover from brain injuries and relearn basic tasks, such as reading and walking.
In pursuing this goal, Yale School of Medicine researchers, led by Stephen Strittmatter, Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology, identified a key genetic switch for brain maturation. The Nogo Receptor allows adolescent brains to mature into adult brains. When the researchers blocked the function of this gene in old mice, the old brains returned to an adolescent level of plasticity. The mice learned new, complex motor tasks more quickly than their mature counterparts did.
According to Dr. Strittmatter, if we similarly manipulated the Nogo Receptor in the human brain, this research “suggests we can turn back the clock in the adult brain and recover from trauma the way kids recover.” Flipping this molecular switch may give us the best of both worlds-a youthful ability to learn and remember combined with an adult ability to remain steady and stable.
The first application of this research may be on stroke victims in an effort to speed rehabilitation. As we peer into the next decade, what a remarkable world of discovery and insight awaits us, whatever the age of our brain.
Photo: CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr