Nature, nurture and neurology: gene-environment interactions in neurodegenerative disease. FEBS Anniversary Prize Lecture delivered on 27 June 2004 at the 29th FEBS Congress in Warsaw.FEBS J. 2005 May; 272(10):2347-61.FJ
Neurodegenerative disorders, such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's diseases, affect millions of people worldwide and currently there are few effective treatments and no cures for these diseases. Transgenic mice expressing human transgenes for huntingtin, amyloid precursor protein, and other genes associated with familial forms of neurodegenerative disease in humans provide remarkable tools for studying neurodegeneration because they mimic many of the pathological and behavioural features of the human conditions. One of the recurring themes revealed by these various transgenic models is that different diseases may share similar molecular and cellular mechanisms of pathogenesis. Cellular mechanisms known to be disrupted at early stages in multiple neurodegenerative disorders include gene expression, protein interactions (manifesting as pathological protein aggregation and disrupted signaling), synaptic function and plasticity. Recent work in mouse models of Huntington's disease has shown that enriching the environment of transgenic animals delays the onset and slows the progression of Huntington's disease-associated motor and cognitive symptoms. Environmental enrichment is known to induce various molecular and cellular changes in specific brain regions of wild-type animals, including altered gene expression profiles, enhanced neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity. The promising effects of environmental stimulation, demonstrated recently in models of neurodegenerative disease, suggest that therapy based on the principles of environmental enrichment might benefit disease sufferers and provide insight into possible mechanisms of neurodegeneration and subsequent identification of novel therapeutic targets. Here, we review the studies of environmental enrichment relevant to some major neurodegenerative diseases and discuss their research and clinical implications.