UNC-Duke study: Impaired brain plasticity linked to Angelman syndrome learning deficits

X-ray BrainCHAPEL HILL — How might disruption of a single gene in the brain cause the severe cognitive deficits associated with Angelman syndrome, a neurogenetic disorder? Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and Duke University now believe they have the answer: impaired brain plasticity.

"When we have experiences, connections between brain cells are modified so that we can learn," said Benjamin Philpot, Ph.D., professor of cell and molecular physiology at UNC and senior author of the study published online May 10 in Nature Neuroscience. "By strengthening and weakening appropriate connections between brain cells, a process termed ‘synaptic plasticity’, we are able to constantly learn and adapt to an ever-changing environment."

Angelman syndrome occurs in one in 15,000 live births. The most common genetic defect of the syndrome is the lack of expression of the gene UBE3A on chromosome 15. The syndrome often is misdiagnosed as cerebral palsy or autism. Characteristics of the syndrome include intellectual and developmental delay, severe mental retardation lack of speech (minimal or no use of words), seizures, sleep disturbance, hand flapping and motor and balance disorders.

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