Have you ever noticed (and felt a little bit jealous about) how much easier it is for children to learn a new skill like skiing, for example - than it is for adults? The human brain has the amazing ability to make new connections between nerve cells and repair or replace other connections. In this way the brain can absorb new experiences, gain skills and retain memories.
© Fotolia, 2012
Scientists call this plasticity, and adults have a much lower level of plasticity than children. It is incredibly important, because if one area of the brain is damaged, through injury or an illness like stroke or Alzheimer's disease, another area can take over some of the function by building alternative connections.
Early results of a European-level project have developed treatments that can restore plasticity in adults back to the level seen in children. One promising possibility is treatment with an enzyme - chondroitinase - that digests the cartilage molecules that normally surround nerve cells from about four to six years of age, and limit their plasticity.
These treatments can restore plasticity in stroke, brain or spinal injury and Alzheimer's disease. In Alzheimer's they can restore the ability to learn and remember as well.
The four-year project is coordinated by Professor James Fawcett from the University of Cambridge. It has enabled scientists studying and promoting plasticity to work with clinicians looking for new treatments. It has involved researchers from universities, large pharmaceutical and small biotech companies; in a total of eight countries, and has received funding of some €5.2 million from the EU's 7th Research Framework Programme.
As well as enabling the scientists to understand how plasticity and memory can be restored, the project has developed new techniques that will contribute to treatments in the future.
A new microscopy tool has been devised for mapping areas of the brain affected by stroke, and methods developed to deliver chondroitinase within the body. Clinical trials have investigated the use of magnetic pulses to the brain together with patient rehabilitation, and plans are in hand for trials of a second enzyme in the treatment of stroke.
Professor Fawcett comments: "The project has far exceeded our expectations. It has enabled us to understand plasticity and to deliver treatments that will restore it, which will help greatly with treatment of diseases that affect large numbers of people."
Fifteen million people worldwide suffer a stroke each year, and Alzheimer's disease affects 18 million. Together with spinal injury, these three conditions are responsible for most cases of long-term disability in Europe, and numbers are increasing due to the ageing population. Treatments that can truly alleviate these conditions are urgently needed in all of the member states, and cannot come too soon.
The project involved so many different aspects of research that it could not have been attempted by teams from a single member state. Only by enabling researchers and clinicians from different disciplines, who would not work together otherwise, to join in an international project has it been possible both to advance medical knowledge in this very complex area, and to develop the practical treatments that can offer a real solution to these types of disability. The project also benefitted greatly from the different skills and approaches of university research and industry.
Professor Fawcett is full of enthusiasm: "The European Research Framework Programme has been dazzlingly successful, in that it has enabled groups of scientists to work together across Europe as easily as within their own country."
Further research is needed to develop the exciting findings to the stage where they can be used to treat patients. But the dramatic discovery that plasticity can be restored following illness or injury, and that the ability to remember can be restored to Alzheimer's patients, makes a powerful promise that enhancing plasticity will be one of the key approaches for effective treatment of these conditions in the future.
Then maybe we won't mind so much when the toddlers we see on the ski slopes are so very much better than their parents.