As humans are living longer, the number of cases of dementia is also rising as a consequence. The neuroscience has developed many insights on how to reduce the incidence of the dementia, but it has also indications of the factors affecting the aging in the brain, such as stress, or accumulation of toxic waste.
One of the promising areas of research is in learning what mechanisms can protect the brain from deterioration, which may even be able to repair de brain structures. Studies with mice have discovered a previously unknown function of the cannabinoid-1 receptor (CB1) . This receptor has an addictive potential, but it also plays an important role in the degeneration of the brain. If it would be possible just to switch off the receptor, the mouse rains would age much faster, meaning that the CB1 signal system has protective effects for nerve cells.
This research, developed at the University of Bonn, studied mice in different age categories (young, middle aged and advanced aged ones). The animals had to perform several tasks, to assess their ability of learning and remembering. The first task consisted in finding a submerged platform in the pool. As soon as the mice learned its location, the platform was moved, in order to find it again.
The researches found that the mice in which the CB1 had been switched off by genetic engineering had a different behavior from the other group, showing clearly diminished learning and memory capacity. They were not only less successful in their search for the platform when compared to the control group, but they also showed a loss of nerve cells in the hippocampus (which is a brain area critical to the formation and storage of memories). Furthermore the researchers found that as the mice advanced in age, the degeneration due to inflammation processes in the brain became noticeable. The control group, that is the mice with intact CB1 receptor, did significantly better in learning and memorizing, as well as in the health of their nerve cells.
What can we learn here or the human beings. The fact that the processes in the mouse brains are in so many ways similar with age related changes in human brains, brings a new idea to the table. The endocannibinoid system may present a protective mechanist in the aging of the human brain, which may lead to potentially finding methods to reduce the brain aging.
Further research will be required to achieve a clear understanding on this mechanism, however the findings coming from the research with the mice are promising.