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Pericytes Help Neurons With Long-Term Memory, New Study Shows

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 08 Oct 2023

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We may have new information to combat long-term memory diseases like Alzheimer’s. The word of the day is pericyte.

Yes, it sounds exactly like parasite, but no, it’s not a life-force-sucking worm. It’s a cell that, among other things, produces hippocampal insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2). According to a new study in Neuron, that production is connected to neural signaling and vital for long-term memory formation.

We’re breaking down what that means and why you should care.

How Pericytes Help With Long-Term Memory

Um, What's a Pericyte?

Pericytes are special types of cells that exist at intervals along capillary walls. They essentially help regulate what’s happening in your body by communicating with all the other blood cells passing through. Think of it like a checkpoint in your bloodstream.

This is particularly important in the brain. Blood flow to the brain is essential for proper bodily functioning, but there can be some yucky stuff in your bloodstream (think viruses, bacteria, extra cholesterol from last night’s cheeseburger) that shouldn’t mix with your brain cells.

Luckily, you have a semipermeable membrane called the blood-brain barrier (BBB) that separates the circulatory and central nervous systems. In simple terms, pericytes help support the BBB by regulating what goes in and what stays out of the brain.

What Do Pericytes Have To Do With Memory?

Generally, we think of neurons as the primary memory mechanism in the brain. As in, my neurons are firing to remember my locker combination. Scientists have long known that these firing patterns are related to forming and reactivating memories.

But neurons also interact with pericytes through the BBB. This new study looked at whether or not the secretions from pericytes played any role in the formation of long-term memories. The results suggest that they do.

Neurons signal for a chemical — insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2), say that ten times fast — and the pericytes produce it. The IGF2 then appears to stimulate other areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. Researchers inhibited this IGF2 production in mice and rats and found that the poor rodents couldn’t remember a darn thing. Objects that the animals had been trained to recognize were suddenly just meaningless arrays of shapes and colors (I assume). At any rate, the rats were super confused. This indicated to researchers that the pericyte activity is a necessary component of long-term memory formation.

Could This Help With Alzheimer's?

Here’s the thing — pericytes have been linked to Alzheimer’s symptoms before. Alzheimer’s patients often exhibit a pericyte deficiency. But now, instead of thinking pericyte degeneration is just a side effect of memory disease, researchers have realized that pericyte loss may be actively making the disease worse. A better understanding of how these cells are involved in the long-term memory process could open the door to new treatment methods.

If scientists know what, specifically, the pericytes are doing to support memory, they could potentially boost that biological function in other ways. For example, it may be easier to inject something into the bloodstream that will help the brain than to directly treat the brain.

Of course, more studies are needed and we’re a long way off from any sort of treatment in humans, but it’s exciting to know that we’re improving our understanding of how memory works.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. Parasites in the brain make him think of Yeerks, and if you understand that reference he would like to be your friend.

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