Myelin – The way we think about myelin is changing

14 Apr

The way we think about myelin is changing.” Indeed,
if we can uncover enough, this type of research might even yield an
actual wonder drug, says Richardson, one that makes us smarter,
speeding up the rate of learning.

In the meantime, the message is clear. “Keep learning, keep your
mind active,” Richardson says. Kraig recommends learning new things,
like a new piano piece, as well as keeping up with ordinary
activities like taking a walk. If it’s an unfamiliar route, with
changing scenery and the requirement to memorise the way home,
that’s all to the good. So embrace a new hobby. And then another. It
should help keep the electricity flowing a little better, a little
longer.

Social networks

After the Romanian Revolution in 1989, the dismal reality of the
country’s orphanages was revealed: 170,000 children had been crowded
into impoverished institutions, largely abandoned, and left without
human contact. A few years later, even after being adopted into good
homes, the children struggled with low IQ, depression, anxiety, and
social and behavioural problems. Brain studies revealed the wiring
between regions wasn’t as efficient; the myelin was lacking.

Almost accidentally, Gabriel Corfas, now at the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor, discovered an analogous phenomenon in young
mice. He was originally planning on studying something else – solo
mice were a control – but the isolated mice turned out to be too
interesting to resist. The oligodendrocytes of socially deprived
mice looked deprived themselves, with scrawnier arms that didn’t
wrap as many times around the axons (see main story).

“Information is flowing more slowly along these circuits,” says
Corfas. “You could expect it would produce functional and
behavioural problems.” Just like the orphans, the mice had poor
memories and problems interacting with other mice.

Social deprivation can cause problems in adults as well, but unlike
in young animals, the damage seems reversible. Similar issues in
friendless adult mice are reversed when they are given cage mates.

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