University molecular biology professor Joe Tsien and a team of researchers recently discovered evidence that may disprove the theory that genetically-induced memory and learning deficits are irreversible.
The researchers' findings — which came from a series of experiments using mice — show that enriched environments may help the brain to learn and perform more efficiently, even when a person has a gene defect that impairs learning, Tsien said.
Tsien and colleagues used mice with memory gene mutations to determine if the animals' ability to learn could be improved. "We put the mice in an enriched environment — a mouse-like Disney Land — for several weeks," Tsien said. "After this time, there was a quite dramatic improvement. The mice completely recovered from their deficits."
Tsien said his findings indicate that a stimulating environment, along with "mental training" can help an individual overcome memory and learning disabilities.
Molecular biology professor Gerry Waters said the findings are "dynamite, cutting-edge and fundamental to the field of neurobiology."
Waters said his experiments' results also shed some light on how to understand the human body. "Anything we learn from mice is going to help us, but exactly how it's going to help or affect us is far down the road," Waters said.
Claire Rampon, one of Tsien's colleagues and a postdoctoral fellow in the molecular biology department, said she believes the experiment may have applications for humans.
"Some studies have shown already that people with a higher education have been less likely to develop Alzheimer's versus people with less education," she said.
"The findings with professor Tsien can show the ability of people with learning disabilities due to defective memory genes can dramatically improve. The more we stimulate the brain, it becomes more efficient and performs better," Rampon added.
Rampon also noted that after several weeks in an enriched environment, the mice with memory gene defections performed just as well as the mice who had no memory gene defections.
Both Tsien and Rampon said they believe the findings will give hope to people with learning disabilities, especially adults.
"If people are born with a defective memory gene, they should not give up. There is a good chance that they will overcome this disability with proper training and the right environment," Tsien said.