Monday, June 11, 2012

Alzheimer’s Research: A Little Mouse Told Me

Picture courtesy Michael Muin
At our last Alzheimer’s Board meeting, we were treated to a tour of Missouri University’s Center for Translational Neuroscience. Our tour included the stroke laboratory, behavior core facilities, surgical suite, cell culture facilities, and neuropathology-histology laboratories.

This was the first time I had ever seen the inside of a research lab and it was doubly interesting to be inside a lab dedicated to studying the brain. One reason mouse models work well for Alzheimer’s research is their brains similarity to human brains.

I was impressed by how Alzheimer’s treatments can be evaluated, and the extensive research conducted on exercise and diet. Agnes Simonyi, PhD, is the researcher who “trains” the mice to find their way through a maze to measure spatial memory.

We saw the different mazes Dr. Simonyi uses in her research. One maze has symbols around the sides, such as an X or plus sign. One symbol has an opening beneath it. The mouse runs around and around until he discovers the opening. Each day the mouse is in the maze, he can find the opening by making fewer trips around the parameter, until eventually he heads straight for the symbol that shows the way out of the maze.

You wouldn’t think that watching a mouse run around in circles could be so fascinating, but the studies prove which therapies improve the mouse’s performance. When Dr. Simonyi showed us the graph, a few things became evident. Food and exercise make a big difference in memory.

One of the tests evaluated green tea. Oh, yeah, I thought, a human would probably have to drink a gallon of green tea a day to show a similar improvement in memory. As if she read my thoughts, Dr. Simonyi said, “The mice were given the equivalent of two cups a day.” She went on to show a wheel where the mice could exercise. It looked kind of like a treadmill for the little fellows—one of those contraptions were you run and run but don’t go anywhere. I didn’t see any little TVs like Brian’s Gym has. They were just running around and around for the fun of it, I guess.

The graphs showed  mice that exercised and drank green tea were the smartest of the groups, followed by the ones that only drank green tea. At the bottom were the mice that resemble most of us—not enough exercise and not paying attention to filling our bodies with antioxidants.

Dr. Grace Sun talked about her research comparing Alzheimer’s mice to their healthier counterparts. She talked about current Alzheimer’s therapies and how available drugs work only for a limited time. One of the studies Dr. Sun is working on is how a healthy diet, exercise, and stress reduction can be preventative therapies for Alzheimer’s. Some of the foods she mentioned as having a positive impact on memory are grapes, curry, green tea, and elderberries.

Dr. Sun said MU will host an international symposium on elderberries in June of 2013. These healthy berries are plentiful in Missouri and have always been popular for jelly and wine. “The Power of purple” in the June 2012 issue of Rural Missouri talks about the promise of elderberries as a super fruit. They aren’t the kind of berry you would eat fresh—they are too tart and not that tasty without a little sweetening.

I have often promoted the healthy brain initiative on my blog and the rule of “what’s healthy for your heart is healthy for your brain.” Nothing drives that home like having a researcher stand in front of you and talk about their personal observations of the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise.

Part of research is geared toward delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. It would seem that an important part of the key is in our supermarkets, our gardens, and maybe even along the fencerows and road right-of-ways in rural Missouri.

If we pump up on exercise and eat a brain healthy diet, we can follow the example of the mouse in the maze. I’m looking forward to stocking up on healthy food and then being able to go straight to my car in Walmart’s parking lot instead of running around in circles until I happen upon it. I know it can happen because a little mouse told me—with a little help from his friends, the researchers at the Center for Translational Neuroscience.

Copyright © June 2012 by L. S. Fisher

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