Many people develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia as they get older. However, others remain sharp well into old age, even if their brains show underlying signs of neurodegeneration.
Among these cognitively resilient people, researchers have identified education level and amount of time spent on intellectually stimulating activities as factors that help prevent dementia. A new study by MIT researchers shows that this kind of enrichment appears to activate a gene family called MEF2, which controls a genetic program in the brain that promotes resistance to cognitive decline.
The researchers observed this link between MEF2 and cognitive resilience in both humans and mice. The findings suggest that enhancing the activity of MEF2 or its targets might protect against age-related dementia.
“It’s increasingly understood that there are resilience factors that can protect the function of the brain,” says Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “Understanding this resilience mechanism could be helpful when we think about therapeutic interventions or prevention of cognitive decline and neurodegeneration-associated dementia.”
Tsai is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Science Translational Medicine. The lead authors are recent MIT PhD recipient Scarlett Barker and MIT postdoctoral fellow and Boston Children’s Hospital physician Ravikiran (Ravi) Raju.
A large body of research suggests that environmental stimulation offers some protection against the effects of neurodegeneration. Studies have linked education level, type of job, number of languages spoken, and amount of time spent on activities such as reading and doing crossword puzzles to higher degrees of cognitive resilience.