Monday, May 13, 2013

Brain creates circuits to bypass areas of damage

Scientists have described for the first time how the brain can respond to damage in one area by forming complex new circuits in another brain region, away from the injured site.

The international research team, including Sydney scientists, found damage to the memory-forming centre of the brain, the hippocampus, promotes the use of circuits in the front region of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, in rats.

While damage to the hippocampus wiped out a rodent's memories, with extensive training the animals could relearn tasks.

The results could lead to new methods of treating brain-damaged patients as well as novel drug targets to enhance recovery.

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The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also challenged the view that the brain was made up of multiple, independent circuits that perform specific tasks.

"This is likely to be true in 90 per cent of cases, but this research shows the brain can recruit completely different pathways in the brain, which were thought to have other functions, for learning and memory," said study co-author Bryce Vissel, the head of the neuroscience research program at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

Previous studies in humans and rats showed the loss of or damage to the hippocampus was devastating to memory. Scientists also believed any recovery would occur close to the injured region.

But in laboratory studies conducted by Dr Vissel's colleagues, including Michael Fanselow at the University of California, the team found while rats with damage to their hippocampi needed a lot of training, they could relearn tasks after their injury.

"It wasn't as good as having a hippocampus, but it worked," Dr Vissel said.

When the team studied the anatomical changes to the rats with damaged hippocampi in the Garvan's laboratories they found significant alterations to the circuits in the front of the organ. The results suggested brain regeneration after an injury could take place away from the damaged site.

"Until now, we've been trying to figure out how to stimulate repair within the hippocampus.

"Now we can see other structures stepping in, and whole new brain circuits coming into being. That's truly exciting," Dr Vissel said.

The Alzheimer's specialist also found previous studies that identified similar changes to the front section of the brain in people with the disease, which also interferes with the hippocampus. The team hope their findings will translate into new treatments for brain-damaged patients.


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