REST Protein Offers Tantalizing Hint About Changes in Alzheimer's Brain

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • There’s a new piece of the puzzle that’s just emerged in the rush to understand what’s happening in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia take over.  It’s called REST and, nope, it’s not about getting enough shut-eye.

    A new study out of Harvard identified a type of brain protein known as REST, which stands for repressor element 1-silencing transcription factor. REST previously had been found in the brains of developing fetuses.  This protein previously was thought to turn off in the brain when an infant is born, although it remained active in other parts of the body, such as the colon.

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    However, it doesn’t seem to be the case that this protein remains turned off throughout a person’s lifespan. In this study, the Harvard researchers looked at the make-up of autopsied brains that came from either young adults, ages 20-35, or older adults, ages 73-106. REST levels were found to be higher in the older adults as long as they didn’t develop dementia.  In comparison, there were lower REST levels in the brains of older people who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, frontotemporal dementia or Lewy body dementia. Interestingly, people who were cognitively normal while alive, but whose brains were found to have plaque buildup that was similar to the tangles found in Alzheimer’s brains had triple the amount of REST than people who actually displayed Alzheimer’s symptoms.

    The researchers also found that the protein levels in the brain dropped as an older person’s cognitive ability declined. Thus, the brains of people who had mild cognitive impairment were found to have higher levels of REST than the brains of people who had more advanced forms of dementia. The researchers also determined that REST levels dropped precipitously in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in people who displayed Alzheimer’s symptoms. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for abstract thinking, thought analysis, regulating control and decision-making while the hippocampus is linked to memory, spatial navigation, spatial memory and behavioral inhibition.

    The researchers don’t know why REST comes back on in older brains, although they hypothesize that the protein may be helping the brain deal with issues such as oxidative stress and inflammation that threaten the brain’s neurons during aging. The researchers want to replicate this study and also want to determine whether decreasing levels of REST results in the brain’s deterioration or whether these lower levels are caused because the brain deteriorates.

    What does that mean for you and me? Well, obviously, we hope that researchers will move quickly to see if this finding can be replicated and, if so, use it to develop treatments. It also suggests that we should do everything in our power to control oxidative stress and inflammation.

    One of the best sources of learning how to do this is looking at the work of Dr. Andrew Weil, who is the director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. He offers a great definition of oxidative stress: “Oxidative stress is the total burden placed on organisms by the constant production of free radicals in the normal course of metabolism plus whatever other pressures the environment brings to bear (natural and artificial radiation, toxins in air, food and water; and miscellaneous sources of oxidizing activity, such as tobacco smoke).” Therefore, we can make lifestyle choices – such as eating a healthy diet, avoiding pollution and not smoking – that may help limit oxidative stress and inflammation.

  • Dr. Weil also offers a template for an anti-inflammatory diet that matches up in the produce department with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s recommendations for oxidative stress. Dr. Weil’s diet recommends eating a lot of fresh seasonal produce. In addition, consume whole and cracked grains, pasta, beans and legumes, healthy fats, fish and seafood, soy foods, and cooked Asian mushrooms. Eating this way is good way to be proactive in trying to protect your brain.

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    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Belluck, P. (2014). Protein may hold the key to who gets Alzheimer’s. New York Times.

    Lu, T., et al. (2014). REST and stress resistance in ageing and Alzheimer’s disease. Nature.

    Mandal, A. (ND). Hippocampus functions. News Medical.

    Natural Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2013). Antioxidants and health: An introduction.

    Weil, A. (ND). Anti-inflammatory diet & pyramid.

    Weil, A. (2009). Stumped by oxidative stress?

    WiseGEEK. (ND). What is the prefrontal cortex?

Published On: March 23, 2014