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Mice 'Stimulate' Their Way to Delaying Huntington's Disease

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April 12, 2000 (Atlanta) -- If results of a new animal study translate even in part to human beings, those who've inherited the Huntington's disease gene may be able to delay the onset of symptoms. Scientists found that mice genetically engineered to develop the disease remain symptom-free significantly longer when they live in a specially enhanced, stimulating environment than when they are kept in a regular cage. The findings appear in the April 13 issue of the journal Nature.

Huntington's disease is an inherited disorder that manifests later in life with severe jerking movements and psychiatric symptoms like psychosis, dementia, personality changes, and depression. The disease is very disabling and results in an early death. It typically appears between the ages of 30 to 40 but can occur either in childhood or in the elderly.

"What we did was take a group of mice in which the gene for Huntington's disease had been inserted, and exposed one set to normal conditions and another set to a novel, or enriched, environment. There was a profound delay in disease onset in the enriched-environment mice," says lead author Anton van Dellen, MD, a Rhodes scholar and researcher at Oxford University in England.

Young Huntington's disease and normal mice were housed in groups either in standard laboratory cages or in enhanced cages where "every two days they were exposed to a new set of sensory stimuli including cardboard sheets, paper to shred, and colorful plastic objects to climb on and explore," says van Dellen.

To judge what effect environment had on the disease, the mice underwent a weekly test to examine their coordination. By the time every one of the non-enriched animals had failed the test, indicating they had gone on to develop Huntington's, only one of the mice living in the enriched environment showed any symptoms at all.

The researchers then examined the animals' brains and found the area that normally worsens in the wake of Huntington's disease was 13% larger in the mice living in the stimulating environment. Van Dellen tells WebMD that he is currently investigating "how connections [in the brain] are altered in the disease and how environmental enrichment affects those changes."

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