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Protein Key to Brain Rewiring
Date:8/7/2008

It sends signals, telling neurons to change connections

THURSDAY, Aug. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists say they're gaining insight into how the brain rewires itself as it learns new things, potentially helping them move toward better treatments for mental illness and brain injuries.

Researchers report that a protein appears to tell the brain that it's time to start rewiring, because new information is coming in.

While the study only looked at mice, the protein "could become a great clinical tool" in humans, said study co-author Takao Hensch, a professor of neurology at Children's Hospital Boston.

At issue is the brain's "plasticity," or ability to change itself as it learns. The brains of young children are the most adaptable, because they can physically rewire themselves.

"You actually have neurons reconnecting from one cell to a different cell," Hensch said. "This kind of dramatic rewiring happens predominantly, if not exclusively, in [early] development."

The brain's ability to adapt to new information explains why children have a much easier time learning languages than adults, Hensch said.

But over time, the brain becomes more settled in its ways. "The ability to rewire neurons in that physical way seems to become much harder with age," he said. "Evolutionarily, somehow it seems to be advantageous to stop that process, to stabilize the networks in your head and go on with life."

In the new study, published in the Aug. 8 issue of Cell, Hensch and colleagues looked at a protein called Otx 2 in mice.

Using a test involving the visual system, the researcher found that the protein acts as a signal to tell the brain that crucial information is coming in from the eyes.

"It's a surprising mechanism," he said. "It indicates that the sensory organs in the periphery -- the eyes at the front of the head -- have a mechanism to tell the brain when the ey
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