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Gene Mutation May Speed Learning

Finding might yield insights into diseases like Parkinson's, experts say

MONDAY, Oct. 12 (HealthDay News) -- People with a specific genetic mutation seem to be "smarter," in the sense of being able to adapt to changing situations and continue to make correct decisions quickly, a new German study suggests.

And people graced with this genotype showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, activity that is probably linked to metabolism of the brain chemical dopamine.

"Dopamine is related to reward so perhaps some individuals can make quicker decisions because they have more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex," said Paul Sanberg, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa.

The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, raise the hope of one day helping people with disorders such as Parkinson's disease that involve dopamine irregularities.

"Dopamine is involved heavily in diseases such as Parkinson's and schizophrenia for which we give drugs affiliated with the dopamine system," Sanberg said. "This might give us a better handle on why cognitive impairment occurs associated with Parkinson's and other diseases. It might also give us a clue as to how to increase cognitive ability in individuals that might have cognitive impairment."

For the study, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin asked 26 healthy men and women in their 20s to play a "game" in which they tried to accumulate points by choosing the most profitable among four choices. Monetary payoffs would change based on the participants' behavior, forcing them to adapt to keep up.

By adapting more easily and learning quickly from mistakes, volunteers with a version of the so-called COMT gene known as Val/Val won more points than participants with a version of the gene called Met/Met.

COMT encodes for an enzyme that breaks down dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Drugs known as COMT inhibitors are used to treat Parkinson's and other disorders.

"This is not something that's going to be a cure right now," said Gerald Frye, a neuropharmacology and neurotoxicology professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. "It's better understanding how the brain works and how a polymorphism [like the ones studied here] could make a difference in who you are as far as how you're brain works."

The dynamics identified by the study are just one part of a larger whole, experts said.

"They're pulling out one part of the brain-mind interface," Frye explained. "Brain programs like this are like players in the orchestra. Each one has a part to play. This may mean that the Val/Val may be a more strident player in the symphony, [but] this is just one player out of the symphony."

More information

The Franklin Institute has more on the human brain.

SOURCES: Paul Sanberg, Ph.D., D.Sc., professor, neurosurgery, and director, University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair, Tampa, Fla.; Gerald Frye, Ph.D., Joseph H. Shelton professor of neuropharmacology and neurotoxicology, Department of Neuroscience and Therapeutics, Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, College Station, Texas; Oct. 12-16, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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