By: Jacob Getzoff and Jenna Koschnitzky, PhD, Director of Research Programs.
Researchers from the University of São Paulo, led by Carlos Henrique Rocha Catalão, PhD, recently published a paper that could positively impact children living with hydrocephalus. Catalão and his team wanted to see first-hand if a stimulating environment could promote healthy brain development in children with hydrocephalus, leading to better outcomes. To conduct ethically sound experiments, scientific researchers will often use animal models. In this case, the researchers chose to study baby rats with hydrocephalus. Some of these hydrocephalic rats were kept in standard cages that were not very mentally stimulating, while others were kept in cages that had colorful walls, toys, tunnels, and other objects to encourage exploration. The scientists found that the rats kept in the stimulating cages performed significantly better on an assessment of motor and cognitive skills than those that were kept in the standard cages.
When taking a closer look at the brains of these rats, the differences were clear. The rats that performed better on the assessment had brains with a higher amount of myelin. This comes as no surprise, as myelin allows brain cells to communicate with each other in both rat brains and human brains. Brain cells, or neurons, send small electrical signals to one another using axons, which function like tiny cables that connect one neuron to another. Myelin forms a covering around these axons, insulating them so the electrical signals can travel quickly between the neurons.
Additionally, the higher-functioning rats had fewer astrocytes present in their brains. Hydrocephalus creates a high amount of stress in the brain tissue lining the ventricles, and so astrocytes are sent to these tissues to assist in healing by forming scars. While this is important in the short-term, the scars that remain in the tissues can prevent some nerve pathways from forming while the brain is developing, which can lead to some cognitive impairment later in life.
While human brains are far more complex than the rat brains these researchers studied, the outcome of the experiment still provides very promising insight. Environmental enrichment can likely make a positive impact in the developing brains of children with hydrocephalus by reinforcing healthy neurological structures.
The study, “Environmental enrichment reduces brain damage in hydrocephalic immature rats”, was published in March 2017 in the journal, Child’s Nervous System. To read more about this study, follow this link: Environmental Enrichment