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Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have discovered that sulfate groups in complex sugar molecules called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) are crucial for the brain’s ability to rewire itself, aiding in recalling familiar faces and acquiring new skills. This research sheds light on the brain’s plasticity, explaining why we remember old faces but may forget recent details like breakfast.

GAGS chemistry can offer insight on brain plasticity

This finding has the potential to enhance understanding of human memory and provide insights into repairing neural connections after injuries. It explores the diverse world of sugars, particularly complex sugar structures formed by combining various sugar types, which can lead to the creation of GAGs through bonding with other chemicals like sulfate groups.

Dr. Linda Hsieh-Wilson, the study’s principal investigator, believes that by studying the chemistry of GAGs in the brain, it is possible to gain insights into brain plasticity. This knowledge may potentially be used in the future to restore or enhance neural connections related to memory.

Chondroitin sulfate, a type of GAG found in the brain, plays a crucial role in regulating proteins and modifying structures in both health and disease. It forms “perineuronal nets,” which strengthen connections between individual brain cells.

Researchers focus on the attachment of sulfate groups to sugars, which can impact processes like neuroplasticity and social memory. This understanding has the potential to lead to treatments for various brain-related disorders. Experiments involving mice with a gene responsible for sulfate patterns removal revealed increased defects in neuron wrapping nets and impaired social memory, indicating the significance of these patterns.

GAGs have an impact on neuron regeneration following injury

The study indicates the potential to modify neural networks in adolescence or adulthood to enhance specific synaptic connections. Researchers are currently exploring the impact of GAGs on neuron regeneration after injury, focusing on identifying protein receptors associated with sugar patterns. Early results suggest that certain patterns inhibit regeneration, and blocking this process could lead to treatments that promote neuron recovery.

Hsieh-Wilson said that gaining a deeper understanding of this process may eventually aid in repairing damage resulting from neurodegenerative diseases or strokes.