Researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK claim to have provided the first evidence that the absence of a particular protein – called the MK2/3 protein – is associated with early signs of dementia. They publish their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
In their study, the researchers explain how information in the brain is transferred using neurotransmitter chemicals that are released from one neuron, which then act on the receptors in the next neuron in the chain (referred to as “the postsynaptic neuron”).
Central to the communication and storage of this information are the spines that protrude from neurons. The MK2/3 protein regulates the shape of spines in postsynaptic neurons. Neurons lacking this protein have narrower, longer spines than properly functioning postsynaptic neurons that have MK2/3.
What the researchers demonstrate in the new study is that the shape of the spines in the neurons without MK2/3 make the neurons less able to communicate with each other.
It is this ability to communicate with other cells that allows neurons to adapt memories and make them more relevant to current situations. The misshapen neurons are therefore less able to acquire new memories.
“Deterioration of brain function commonly occurs as we get older but, as result of dementia or other neurodegenerative diseases, it can occur earlier in people’s lives,” says lead researcher and author Dr. Sonia Corrêa.
For people with early signs of dementia, it becomes more difficult for them to perform routine tasks. Dr. Corrêa explains how MK2/3 is associated with this cognitive change:
“For example, washing the dishes; if you have washed them by hand your whole life and then buy a dishwasher it can be difficult for those people who are older or have dementia to acquire the new memories necessary to learn how to use the machine and mentally replace the old method of washing dishes with the new. The change in shape of the postsynaptic neuron due to absence of MK2/3 is strongly correlated with this inability to acquire the new memories.”
Dr. Corrêa says it is vital to understand how the brain functions from the sub-cellular to systems level in order for scientists to develop treatments for dementia and other age-related changes.
“By demonstrating for the first time that the MK2/3 protein, which is essential for neuron communication, is required to fine-tune memory formation, this study provides new insight into how molecular mechanisms regulate cognition,” she says.
“Given their vital role in memory formation, MK2/3 pathways are important potential pharmaceutical targets for the treatment of cognitive deficits associated with aging and dementia.”
Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study from the University of Oxford in the UK that found obesity may increase risk for dementia in early to mid-life. Interestingly, though, the same study found that obesity in later life may have a protective effect against dementia.
Another recent study found that there may be a link between vitamin D consumption and the risk of developing dementia. In that study, participants with low levels of vitamin D were 53% more likely to develop dementia, and participants who were severely deficient were 125% more likely to develop dementia, compared with participants who had normal levels of vitamin D.