Researchers study ageing's effect on the brain

Posted on 10 October 2011

Research by biologists at the University of York and Hull York Medical School has revealed important new information about the way the brain is affected by age.

A Drosophila dendrite field in the body wall of the larvae, showing mitochondria – one possible source of oxidative stress – in green. Image, M.Oswald and S. Sweeney

Working with scientists at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in Plymouth, they have studied responses to stress in synapses – neuronal connections.

The researchers discovered that under stressful conditions, such as neuro-degeneration, resulting high energy forms of damaging oxygen cause synapses to grow excessively, potentially contributing to dysfunction.

Such stresses occur during neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.

The research, which was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Laboratory modelling was carried out using Drosophila, but similar pathways are present in humans. The scientists studied the responses using a model of lysosomal storage disease, an inherited incurable childhood neurodegeneration where enlarged synapses have been observed, but the role that growth has in disease progression and brain function is not yet clear.

The findings have strong implications for neuronal function as brains age

Dr Sean Sweeney

Co-author Dr Sean Sweeney, of the Department of Biology at the University of York, said: “The findings have strong implications for neuronal function as brains age, and will add significantly to our understanding of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.”

Co-author Dr Iain Robinson, of the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, added: “Neuronal contacts in the brain are constantly changing. These changes in the brain enable us to form short term memories such as where we parked the car, or longer term memories, such as what is our pin number for the cash point machine. Our work sheds light on how our brain becomes less able to make these changes in neuronal contacts as we age and helps explain the loss of neuronal contacts seen in several neurodegenerative diseases.”

Notes to editors:

  • More about the University of York’s Department of Biology at www.york.ac.uk/biology/
  • More about the Hull York Medical School at www.hyms.ac.uk/
  • More about Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry at www.pcmd.ac.uk/
  • BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk
    For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes
  • For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk

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