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New way to stimulate learning?

Mar. 14, 2019, 1:00 PM

by Bill Snyder

The vagus nerve connects the brain and organs throughout the body. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) implants have been used for more than 20 years to treat drug-resistant epilepsy.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Teresa Sanders, PhD, and colleagues report that VNS also induces specific epigenetic changes that control expression of genes involved in learning and memory.

Rats receiving VNS demonstrated greater preference for novel objects. The brains of treated rats exhibited reduced stress-response signaling and increased plasticity that correlated with enhanced novelty preference.

VNS increased cortical transcription of the activity-regulated cytoskeletal (ARC) gene, which is disrupted in Alzheimer’s disease and intellectual disabilities. VNS also modulated DNA double-strand breaks at the ARC promoter; such breaks are known to facilitate transcription of immediate-early genes like ARC.

The researchers concluded that VNS could be beneficial for treating Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment. The study also identified epigenetic enzymes such as histone deacetylase HDAC11 that are new pharmacological targets for enhancing cognition.

This research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

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