How ‘dendritic spines’ may prevent dementia

The phrase “show some more spine”, generally associated with a call for courage, could soon take on a new meaning. 

Based on new research the ‘spine’ in this case could help fight dementia by protecting what’s known as ‘cognitive reserve’. This may sound somewhat confusing, so first, a clarification. The ‘spine’ being referred to here is not the one that runs down our backs. In this case, we’re talking about what are known as dendritic spines. 

Dendritic spines are tiny protrusions from dendrites, which are structures of the neurons in our brain. It turns out that dendritic spines come in different forms, including thin ones and mushroom-shaped ones.

Scientists believe the thin dendritic spines are more plastic, making them vital for the process of learning.  The mushroom-shaped ones, by contrast, are likely more stable, and thought to be involved in retaining long-term memories.

In research that zeroes in on thin spines, it was found their number is reduced in people who have cognitive impairments through Alzheimer’s disease. Not only that, we also know that spines are longer in people who are cognitively normal. 

So in this case, “show some more spines” rather than “show some more spine” is a more apt phrase. And more apt still, is “show some more long spines”.

Why dendritic spines are important for cognitive reserve

The importance of this discovery is it helps us to understand why learning a new language or doing crosswords helps ward off dementia. It may also explain why those activities alone are not always enough. 

My mother succumbed to dementia in her later years, despite being an avid and accomplished cryptic crossword puzzle solver. I can still remember the sadness and confusion I felt when she came to me one day and said, “I just can’t do these anymore”.

That’s not to say those years of solving crosswords hadn’t helped; they almost certainly did. But while such activities helped build cognitive reserve, they may not have been enough to prevent a loss of ‘brain reserve’. 

Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University in New York, likens cognitive reserve to software and brain reserve to hardware. Taking the computer analogy a step further, it is a relatively easy task to upgrade software (cognitive). But it was long thought that as ‘hardware’, the brain reserve had a fixed capacity.

We now know that is not true, and that a number of factors can affect and change brain reserve. We also know that the brain appears to create new neurons well into adulthood, rather than having a fixed amount as previously believed.

Scientists now believe that what they call ‘brain maintenance’, combined with cognitive reserve and brain reserve, to be vital.

Brain maintenance

Part of that brain maintenance is exercising it, through activities such as puzzles and learning a new language. Further to that, though, could be the replenishment of long, thin dendritic spines. 

That replenishment could involve a protein called neuritin, also known as NRN1. This protein is secreted by neurons and found throughout the brain. And research shows it seems to act as a mediator of cognitive resilience to Alzheimer’s disease. That research highlights another important characteristic of dendritic spines – density.

Researchers found that higher levels of NRN1 in later life were associated with better cognitive abilities and greater spine density. So, just as we need nutrition as well as exercise to maintain physical health, our brains need an equivalent. In this case, the nutritional equivalent is NRN1.

“It’s almost like a vitamin for neurons,” says Jeremy Herskowitz, Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Alabama. 

Research into NRN1 is still very much in its infancy. However, Prof Herskowitz Herskowitz envisages it could one day be given as a supplement to support brain function. 

Then more of us may be able to “show some spine” and help ward off dementia.

Do you know someone who has experienced dementia? Have any particular treatments or activities helped? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Delirium vs dementia – an important difference

Healthdisclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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