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Vitamin D deficiency may cause cognitive decline through weakening brain's scaffolding

Published on 26/02/19 at 11:54am

Vitamin D deficiency may weaken supportive ‘scaffolding’ in the brain thus causing neurons difficulty in maintaining connections, according to a study published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience.

The research goes some way to explaining the link between low levels of vitamin D and a person’s likelihood of developing the neurological symptoms of mental health conditions.

Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to various conditions including schizophrenia. Meanwhile studies show that depriving middle aged rodents of vitamin D led them to develop brain damage and perform less well on cognitive tests.

“Over a billion people worldwide are affected by vitamin D deficiency, and there is a well-established link between vitamin D deficiency and impaired cognition,” Thomas Burne, an associate professor at the University of Queensland Brain Institute in St. Lucia, Australia, said.

“Unfortunately, exactly how vitamin D influences brain structure and function is not well-understood, so it has remained unclear why deficiency causes problems.”

Burne thus deprived mice of dietary vitamin D for 20 weeks. The professor found that the mice lacking vitamin D were less likely to be able to learn and remember new things compared with mice in the control group.  

Burne hypothesised that vitamin D makes perineuronal nets (PNNs) – scaffolding in the brain which plays an important role in neuroplasticity – more vulnerable to the degrading actions of enzymes.

“These nets form a strong, supportive mesh around certain neurons, and in doing so, they stabilize the contacts these cells make with other neurons,” Burne explained.

“There was also a stark reduction in both the number and strength of connections between neurons in [the hippocampus].”

“As neurons in the hippocampus lose their supportive perineuronal nets, they have trouble maintaining connections, and this ultimately leads to a loss of cognitive function.”

Louis Goss

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