In a nutshell: Rearing mice with opportunities for physical exercise and social interactions can restore activity in brain cells that would otherwise have reduced capacity to communicate.

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Brain cells communicate over long distances using electrical pulses called action potentials. These pulses are generated in a part of the cell called the axon initial segment (AIS). The longer the AIS is, the easier it is for that brain cell to generate an action potential.

Exposure to certain chemicals in early life, which results in symptoms similar to those seen in people with schizophrenia, can shorten the length of the AIS in brain cells that mediate personality and social behaviour.

Fortunately, this shortening can be reversed in mice by providing them with improved housing conditions, more physical exercise, and better social interactions from birth. That is the conclusion of recent work by the Brain Function CoE’s Nafiseh Atapour and Marcello Rosa, in collaboration with the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan and Kerman University of Medical Sciences in Iran.

“This finding highlights the importance of having opportunities for physical activity and social stimulation from the moment of birth,” says Atapour. “Previous studies introducing these opportunities only after weaning didn’t find the same benefits. Even if the baby mice themselves don’t make use of the more interesting environment, their brains still seem to benefit from their parents doing so.”

Next steps:
Future work will look at changes in AIS length in brain cells that are involved in different functions (such as vision or movement), and try to understand how these findings apply to humans.

Nozari, M., Suzuki, T., Rosa, M. G., Yamakawa, K., & Atapour, N. (2017). The impact of early environmental interventions on structural plasticity of the axon initial segment in neocortex. Developmental Psychobiology, 59(1), 39-47.

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