Hypoxia makes nerve cells grow

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, together with scientists from the University Hospitals of Copenhagen and Hamburg-Eppendorf showed that oxygen deficiency activates the growth factor erythropoietin (Epo) in the brains of mice, which is known for its stimulating effect on red blood cells, and also promotes the formation of new synapses and nerve cells. The work was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

In the new study, experts studied which areas of the brain and cell types suffer from a lack of oxygen. For this purpose, they used genetically modified mice, the brains of which produce a specific molecule and fluorescent dye that serve as indicators of oxygen deficiency.

For several days, the animals were subjected to physical and psychological stress using a jogging wheel. In addition to the physical effort during the exercise, the mice also had to concentrate on running to avoid tripping. The researchers studied gene activation in different brain regions and cell populations to find out how the brain responds to hypoxia induced by such activity.

In fact, training with a treadmill had the same effect as reducing oxygen in the air. In both cases, the changes in the activity of many genes were similar, resulting in a moderate oxygen deficit throughout the brain. However, there were significant differences between the different cell types. Nerve cells were particularly affected, while glial cells were slightly affected. In addition, the Epo gene in the brain, along with many other genes, was particularly strongly stimulated by both mental and physical activity. Thus, complex motor-cognitive activity led to functional hypoxia, which regulated the expression of adaptive genes and promoted neuroplasticity.

It is not yet known whether mild hypoxia leads to the strengthening of the nerve cell network in humans or even to their formation. Therefore, experts plan to conduct similar studies in humans. The results could eventually benefit patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

Feb. 16, 2021, 12:38 p.m.

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