News | 16 February 2018

‘A new brain within a month’

Research into protein synthesis in the brain

Brain tissue (consisting mainly of proteins) is renewed within a period of four to five weeks. This has been established for the first time by researchers of the departments of Human Biology and Neurosurgery at Maastricht UMC+. They measured the protein synthesis rate of brain tissue in six patients undergoing surgery for temporal lobe epilepsy. The rate appeared to be considerably higher than that of muscle tissue, for example. This finding may cast new light on the capacity and flexibility of the brain and the role of protein synthesis in information processing.

iStockiStockAll tissues in the human body undergo continuous renewal based on the changes in protein synthesis and breakdown. The turnover rate of these processes can be determined by attaching a kind of 'label' to the proteins. This method was also used to show that muscle tissue is completely replaced by new material within three months. Human brain tissue, however, is less easy to study because it is much harder to obtain. Nevertheless, researchers were able to determine the protein turnover rate in the brains of six patients undergoing surgery for temporal lobe epilepsy at Maastricht UMC+. The results appeared to be surprising.

Four weeks
It has been found before that the human brain shows structural changes upon developing cognitive skills. But it has never been studied whether protein synthesis and breakdown might play a role in this process. PhD research conducted by Joey Smeets, MD, reveals that the brain protein turnover rate averages between three to four percent a day. This implies that all proteins in the brain are replaced by new material within approximately four to five weeks.

Fundamental process
The exact implications of this finding are as yet unclear, but it definitely casts new light on a fundamental process in our brain. This is the organ in which data are stored, information is interpreted and processed (consciously or unconsciously) and personality and emotions are regulated. 'It is still difficult to say what the effect is of the fact that the building blocks of brain tissue are all replaced within a month', says prof. Luc van Loon (Human Biology). 'But the fast protein turnover could well play a key role here.'

The Maastricht researchers have recently published their findings in the scientific journal Brain