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Cognitive decline is a common feature of aging, affecting more than 16 million people living in the United States. Findings from a new study in mice suggest that reducing inflammation in the brain may slow or reverse cognitive decline.

Chronic inflammation is a key element of the aging process and drives many age-related diseases and conditions. The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is critical to healthy brain function, but chronic, systemic inflammation may cause changes in the BBB, allowing toxic blood-borne molecules to enter the brain. For example, rodent models of traumatic brain injury (TBI) demonstrate that loss of BBB function following TBI allows albumin, a type of protein, to enter the brain. This, in turn, activates the transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-ß) signaling pathway, which drives a pro-inflammatory environment and compromises cognitive function. Roughly two-thirds of all adults over the age of 70 years have some degree of BBB dysfunction.

The authors of this study measured serum albumin in mice and found that it was detectable in the brains of mice as early as 12 months of age (which corresponds roughly to “middle age”), suggesting that BBB dysfunction occurred much earlier than commonly believed. Then they gave the mice a drug that inhibited the action of the TGF-ß receptor, impairing TGF-ß signaling and reversing the accompanying cognitive dysfunction.

These findings suggest that reducing inflammation in the brain could serve as a means to restore cognitive function in older adults.

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