Genetics, Mind & Brain

Flipping a single “molecular switch” makes an old mouse brain young

A single molecular switch can make the transition between the active, malleable brain of an adolescent and the mature, stable brain of an adult; yep, a single gene can turn us back to the childlike curiosity we exhibit as adolescents.

A neuron cultured for the study. Via Yale University.

Researchers have known for quite a while that adolescent brains are typically more malleable (or plastic) than adult ones, allowing them  for example to learn foreign languages much faster and recover from any brain injuries. The relative rigidity of the adult brain stems (mostly) from the function of a single gene that slows the rapid change in synaptic connections between neurons. Now, Yale researchers have identified the key genetic switch for brain maturation a study released March 6 in the journal Neuron.

The Nogo Receptor 1 gene supresses the high levels of plasticity in the adolescent brain as you grow up. In mice without this gene, juvenile levels of brain plasticity persist throughout adulthood, allowing them to keep the young, learning-avid brain as they age. Furthermore, the supression of the gene in older mice also reset their brains to the adolescent levels of plasticity.

“These are the molecules the brain needs for the transition from adolescence to adulthood,” said Dr. Stephen Strittmatter. Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology, Professor of Neurobiology and senior author of the paper. “It suggests we can turn back the clock in the adult brain and recover from trauma the way kids recover.”

Not only can we recover from trauma the way children do, but we can also literally improve our minds, indirectly keeping the child-like curiosity avid as we age, leading to better and healthier lives. So far, this study has only been conducted on mice, and it will most likely take a while before it is adapted to humans, but I for one am holding my breath. To think that such a big change depends on a single gene…

“We know a lot about the early development of the brain,” Strittmatter said, “But we know amazingly little about what happens in the brain during late adolescence.”