A stimulating environment keeps the hippocampus, which is the brain’s memory control center, always young and active. This is the conclusion of a new study developed at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), which also maintains that environmental factors influence molecular mechanisms that affect genetic regulation: they preserve optimal brain conditions for longer and delay inherent changes. to aging.
By conducting studies in rodents, the researchers found that the genome of mice grown in a stimulating environment registered a relatively small change with age, only in certain chemical labels of DNA. According to a Press release, in mice with a low stimulus environment, on the other hand, genetic variants that predispose to a accelerated brain aging they were much more pronounced.
Although the way in which humans react to external stimuli is much more complex than that which can be registered in rodents, scientists also believe that the basic epigenetic principles are the same in humans as in mice. The epigenética it is precisely related to the influence of environmental factors on the mechanisms that regulate gene expression.
Consequently, if these principles are similar, it is likely that the effects found in rodents can also be seen in humans. This is not a secondary issue: DNA is our genetic “scaffolding”, the basic model that governs us, but cellular functioning is also strongly influenced by the activation or not of certain genes. It is at this point where the impact of factors linked to the environment.
Turn on the right genes
In other words, the way we age determines the activation of certain genes. If we have positive stimuli, such as the development of pleasant tasks, social interaction or permanent intellectual challenges that take us out of the “comfort zone”, the genes related to the aging of the brain would remain “asleep” for longer.
In the framework of the research, published in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists analyzed the impact of the so-called methyl groups, which function as chemical tags that adhere to DNA. The aforementioned chemical bonds do not alter genetic information on their own: they influence whether individual genes can be activated or not.
In the stimulated rodents, the methyl groups did not substantially modify their activity, something that impacted on a series of genes relevant for the growth of new neurons and cellular connections in the hippocampus area. In this way, the brain of these rodents stayed young and preserved its functions intact for longer.
In contrast, mice with a poor stimulus showed profound changes in the methyl groups, consequently determining that the genes that “renew” the dynamics of the hippocampus are not activated. From this, what was activated was the brain aging and the functions began to be altered.
The impact of the environment and stimuli
This study focused on the genetic aspects and did not include questions related to behavior, but nevertheless the specialists highlighted that similar results have been appreciated when they were carried out. memory tests in rodents: the more stimulated specimens obtained better results than those with a low stimulus level.
The new research seems to indicate that environmental factors strongly influence the processes related to senescence, through which cell aging occurs and cells stop dividing. Beyond the control of diseases linked to aging, it is time then to give higher priority to the intellectual, cultural and social activities that can keep the brain young for longer.
Environmental enrichment preserves a young DNA methylation landscape in the aged mouse hippocampus. Zocher et al. Nature Communications (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23993-1
Photo: Vlad Sargu en Unsplash.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.