Our brains go through remarkably flexible periods in childhood when they can form new connections in a flash and retain information at a rate that leaves adults (or at least me) both impressed and also deeply jealous.
Now neurobiologist Carla Shatz, PhD, has developed a drug that at least in mice can briefly open that window for making new connections in the adult brain. It works as a sort of decoy, tricking other molecules in the cell into binding to it rather than to the "real" protein on the neuron's surface. Without the bound molecules, the protein on the neuron's surface releases its brake on synapse formation.
There are still a number of hurdles to overcome before the drug could work in people. The human version of the protein she studied is slightly different than the mouse version, and she had to inject the drug directly into the mouse brain. She would need to find a way of delivering the drug as a pill before it could be useful in people.
Despite those hurdles, the possibilities are exciting. From a story I wrote on the possible uses for such a drug, which she had tested in a form of blindness in mice:
This model that the team studied in mice directly applies to forms of blindness in people. Children who are born with cataracts need to have the problem repaired while the vision processing region of the brain is still able to form new connections with the eyes. “If the damage isn’t repaired early enough then it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to recover vision,” Shatz said.
If a version of the decoy protein could work in people, then kids born with cataracts in countries with limited access to surgery could potentially have their cataracts removed later, receive a drug, and be able to see. Similarly, the window could be briefly opened to help people recover from stroke or other conditions.
Previously: How villainous substance starts wrecking synapses long before clumping into Alzheimer’s plaques, “Pruning synapses” and other strides in Alzheimer’s research
Image, which shows neurons of the visual system in mice that have formed new connections, courtesy of the Shatz lab