People who bear the genetic mutation for Huntington's disease learn faster than healthy people. The more pronounced the mutation was, the more quickly they learned. This is reported by researchers from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and from Dortmund in the journal Current Biology. The team has thus demonstrated for the first time that neurodegenerative diseases can go hand in hand with increased learning efficiency. "It is possible that the same mechanisms that lead to the degenerative changes in the central nervous system also cause the considerably better learning efficiency" says Dr. Christian Beste, head of the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group "Neuronal Mechanisms of Action Control" at the RUB.
Passive learning through repeated stimulus presentation
In a previous study, the Bochum psychologists reported that the human sense of vision can be changed in the long term by repeatedly exposing subjects to certain visual stimuli for short periods (we reported in May 2011, http://aktuell.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/pm2011/pm00136.html.de). The task of the participants was to detect changes in the brightness of stimuli. They performed better if they had viewed the stimuli passively for a while first. In the current study, the researchers presented the same task to 29 subjects with the genetic mutation for Huntington's disease, who, however, did not yet show any symptoms. They also tested 45 control subjects without such mutations in the genome. In both groups, the learning efficiency was better after passive stimulus presentation than without the passive training. Subjects with the Huntington's mutation, however, increased their performance twice as fast as those without the mutation.
Glutamate may have paradoxical effect
Degenerative diseases of the nervous system are based on complex changes. A key mechanism is an increased release of the neurotransmitter glutamate. However, since glutamate is also important for learning, in some cases it could lead to the paradoxical effect: better learning efficiency despite degeneration of the nerve cells.
Detecting differences in brightness under aggravated conditions