Given an easy switch to increase the plasticity of the adult brain, boosting the pace at which new neurons and new neural connections are formed, researchers will gather much more data in the years ahead as to how effective this might be as a stop-gap therapy to slow or compensate for some of the effects of aging:
Scientists have long known that the young and old brains are very different. Adolescent brains are more malleable or plastic, which allows them to learn languages more quickly than adults and speeds recovery from brain injuries. The comparative rigidity of the adult brain results in part from the function of a single gene that slows the rapid change in synaptic connections between neurons.
By monitoring the synapses in living mice over weeks and months, [researchers] have identified the key genetic switch for brain maturation. [The] Nogo Receptor 1 gene is required to suppress high levels of plasticity in the adolescent brain and create the relatively quiescent levels of plasticity in adulthood. In mice without this gene, juvenile levels of brain plasticity persist throughout adulthood. When researchers blocked the function of this gene in old mice, they reset the old brain to adolescent levels of plasticity.
"These are the molecules the brain needs for the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It suggests we can turn back the clock in the adult brain and recover from trauma the way kids recover." Rehabilitation after brain injuries like strokes requires that patients re-learn tasks such as moving a hand. Researchers found that adult mice lacking Nogo Receptor recovered from injury as quickly as adolescent mice and mastered new, complex motor tasks more quickly than adults with the receptor.