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Keywords:

  • environmental enrichment;
  • learning and memory;
  • dentate gyrus;
  • NGF;
  • neurogenesis

Abstract

Environmental manipulations can enhance neuroplasticity in the brain, with enrichment-induced cognitive improvements being linked to increased expression of growth factors, such as neurotrophins, and enhanced hippocampal neurogenesis. There is, however, a great deal of variation in environmental enrichment protocols used in the literature, making it difficult to assess the role of particular aspects of enrichment upon memory and the underlying associated mechanisms. This study sought to evaluate the efficacy of environmental enrichment, in the absence of exercise, as a cognitive enhancer and assess the role of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), neurogenesis and synaptogenesis in this process. We report that rats housed in an enriched environment for 3 and 6 weeks (wk) displayed improved recognition memory, while rats enriched for 6 wk also displayed improved spatial and working memory. Neurochemical analyses revealed significant increases in NGF concentration and subgranular progenitor cell survival (as measured by BrdU+ nuclei) in the dentate gyrus of rats enriched for 6 wk, suggesting that these cellular changes may mediate the enrichment-induced memory improvements. Further analysis revealed a significant positive correlation between recognition task performance and BrdU+ nuclei. In addition, rats enriched for 6 wk showed a significant increase in expression of synaptophysin and synapsin I in the dentate gyrus, indicating that environmental enrichment can increase synaptogenesis. These data indicate a time-dependent cognitive-enhancing effect of environmental enrichment that is independent of physical activity. These data also support a role for increased concentration of NGF in dentate gyrus, synaptogenesis, and neurogenesis in mediating this effect. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.