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Research at Mass General
Research Roundup is a monthly recap of hospital-wide research news from Massachusetts General Hospital.
High blood pressure is a major cause of heart disease and stroke. While half the risk of developing high blood pressure is due to inherited factors, until recently researchers only understood 2 percent of the genetic reasons for that risk.
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are now a step closer to understanding the genetic underpinnings of high blood pressure after two multi-institutional studies identified 44 new gene sites associated with the condition.
The findings suggest that new treatments targeting factors other than salt excretion – the typical strategy for controlling high blood pressure – could help with the condition. Christopher Newton-Cheh, MD, MPH, was senior author of the two studies that reported these findings.
Whenever you have a memorable new experience, such as scuba diving in the Caribbean or reading the latest Research Roundup (lucky you!), the memories are encoded in the hippocampus, one of the few parts of the brain where neural stem cells continue to create new neurons.
Like trees seeking sunlight in the forest, these new neurons compete with older neurons for space within the nerve networks of the hippocampus.
As the human brain matures, the connections between older neurons become stronger, more numerous and intertwined, making it harder for new neurons to get established.
With fewer new neurons to help sort through memories, aging brains can have trouble differentiating between events, leading to confusion over what happened when. In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, overlapping neurons can accidentally retrieve an upsetting memory at the wrong time.
Working with mouse models, a multi-institutional research team led by Amar Sahay, PhD, of the Mass General Center for Regenerative Medicine, recently found two ways to promote the growth of new neurons by reducing the expression of proteins that support older neurons.
This strategy gave new neurons a boost in integrating with the hippocampus and reduced the overlap between old and new neurons, enabling the brain to create more distinct memory patterns.
Do you enjoy mind-stimulating activities such as reading, playing brain games or attending cultural events?
The evidence is growing that they can boost your brain functioning and delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease or other age-associated dementias.
While previous research studies have suggested this link, questions remained as to whether there was a real cause-and-effect relationship, or if the results were biased by other factors, such as socioeconomic status or preexisting mental health conditions.
A research team from Mass General and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently analyzed 12 peer-reviewed studies suggesting a positive link between late-in-life cognitive activities and the delayed onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
They concluded that any bias that outside factors might have played would not have been significant enough to change the positive outcomes.
“Cognitive activity looks like it may offer some modest protection, and based on our bias analysis I am somewhat less skeptical about the results of the previous studies,” says Deborah Blacker, MD, ScD, of the Mass General Gerontology Unit, senior author of the report. “But remember that any impact will be relative, not absolute."
"I typically advise people to engage in cognitive activities that they find interesting and enjoyable for their own sake. There is no evidence that one kind of activity is better than another, so I would advise against spending money on programs claiming to protect against dementia."
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