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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Protective mind coating

UCLA researchers learn how a nerve-tissue wrap in the brain, myelin, impacts behavior


Abnormal development of the protective insulation that wraps around the wiring of the brain's nerve cells could result in a range of behavioral problems - including autism, attention deficit disorder, drug abuse and schizophrenia, according to a new study.

Dr. George Bartzokis and his colleagues at the University of California in Los Angeles have studied brain scans in living humans and autopsied brains to unravel the role of myelin, the insulation material. The thicker and heavier the wrapping, the faster and more effective nerve cells can communicate.

Bartzokis is the scientist who first discovered that myelin production continues to grow throughout the first four decades, then peaks at 45 and goes down from there. "We are truly adults at our 50th birthday," he said.

In his latest study, published in Adolescent Psychiatry, Bartzokis and his colleagues map out a picture of the younger brain undergoing myelination and what can happen if those connections don't develop normally.

He believes that humans myelinate different circuits at varying points throughout life, which could explain why the brain diseases of young people are so different from those of older ones.

For instance, if myelin is disrupted early in life, basic circuits that govern language and social communication might not develop normally, hence autism.

If the problems develop in school-age children, the inability to process information fast and effectively could pave the way for attention deficits. Even later in adolescence, problems with myelin can impair a person's ability to think clearly, a common feature of schizophrenia.

So what's a brain to do?

Myelin is a fatty acid, and Bartzokis said that there may already be medicines, certain foods and fish oil supplements high in fatty acids that promote myelination. He likens it to a high-speed Internet connection. Without proper myelination, the brain "can't get online," he said.

Only vertebrates have myelin, and humans have the most - about 20 percent more than chimps. It increases the speed of transmission of information, expands the brain's bandwidth and allows the brain to go online.

The California scientist said that this finding could explain why it is virtually impossible to see any obvious brain damage in many of these developmental disorders.

"There's no dead anything on autopsy," Bartzokis said. "Those brain connections just never developed normally."

If people are working offline because of myelination problems, Bartzokis said, "it's not that they are bad or dumb. It's that they are not able to bring all of their knowledge to bear."

That's why a teenager's knowledge about the dangers of driving while drunk might not help when he or she is in a high-risk situation.

Barzokis' brain scans of healthy people from 19 to 76 show a myelination growth curve. In middle age, when myelin is on the decline, a number of new brain diseases emerge.

Genes, environmental toxins and even diet appear to influence the myelination process, Bartzokis said.

Good news for the female brain: His studies show that female brains are making better myelin, which could explain why young boys are at greater risk for problems.

Posted by Becca

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