THURSDAY, March 10, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Keeping the brain busy may help stave off signs of Alzheimer's disease, researchers report.
The University of Chicago study found that mice that lived in an "enriched environment" with chew toys, running wheels and tunnels that helped keep their brains and bodies active had lower levels of Alzheimer's-associated brain plaques and protein buildup than mice that lived in less stimulating surroundings.
"This goes back to the old idea of use it or lose it, that using your brain keeps it more active. It's more common sense than anything, but what we didn't previously appreciate is that it might affect the pathology that is characteristic of Alzheimer's disease," researcher Sangram Sisodia said in a prepared statement.
His team's research focused on mice genetically engineered to mimic early onset Alzheimer's disease in humans, including a similar clumping of amyloid proteins around brain cells. Some of the mice frolicked in the "enriched" environment, while the others were placed in less active, less engaging surroundings.
Brain tissue levels of toxic b-amyloid tangles or plaques associated with Alzheimer's were markedly lower in mice with the more intellectually challenging environment, compared to their less-stimulated counterparts, the researchers said.
Analysis of gene and enzyme expression in the enriched mice suggests they may have been better equipped than the other mice to clear the b-amyloid peptides out of their brains, the Chicago team explained in the March 11 issue of the journal Cell.
The findings suggest that an enriched environment acts as a protective factor for the mice by keeping b-amyloid peptide levels low enough to prevent them from clumping and causing damage.
The researchers believe physical activity may be a factor, too. The most physically active mice had the largest reductions in b-amyloid peptides and deposits, they noted. But they added that more research, with larger numbers of mice, is required to determine exactly how an enriched environment benefits the animals.
In the meantime, it certainly couldn't hurt for aging humans to get more mentally and physically active. "It's all very important in keeping the mind active and potentially staving off effects of old age," Sisodia said.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about Alzheimer's disease.