By using a mouse model of Rett syndrome, Australian scientists have shown that mental and physical exercise can actually boost coordination and movement problems in this debilitating genetic brain development disorder that primarily affects females.
Researchers from the Howard Florey Institute in Melbourne used the mouse model developed by the Children's Medical Research Institute in Sydney and found that these mice responded positively to the effects of environmental enrichment.
When Rett syndrome mice were given a range of mazes, toys and exercise equipment to stimulate them both mentally and physically there was a significant reduction in the onset and severity of coordination and movement problems, said A/Prof Anthony Hannan from the Howard Florey Institute.
"Mari Kondo in my laboratory discovered that environmental enrichment significantly improved the ability of the Rett syndrome mice to learn and maintain tasks that required coordinated movements. We also found that a special brain chemical called BDNF, which plays a role in the birth and survival of new neurons as well as modifying connections in the brain, was at similar levels in both normal mice and the enriched Rett syndrome mice," said Hannan.
He added: The Rett syndrome mice that did not receive environmental enrichment had lower levels of BDNF and performed poorly on movement and coordination tasks. This discovery shows that gene-environment interactions may be important for all brain diseases, including those caused by an inherited gene mutation.
"The next step is for us to look at the effects of environmental enrichment on anxiety and cognition in the mice, as these are common problems in Rett syndrome."
Prof Patrick Tam of the Children's Medical Research Institute, developer of the Rett syndrome mouse model, said that since the last seven years his research team, and especially Dr Gregory Pelka, had been investigating Rett syndrome genetics.
"We have already found a number of genes that may be linked to the development of Rett syndrome. More research in this area is urgently needed as Rett syndrome is the second most common form of severe mental disability in girls after Down syndrome in Australia," he said.