Nurture Versus Nature Enriched Environments Can Help Overcome Inherited Learning Disorders

Coffin-Lowry Syndrome, neurofibroma-tosis mental retardation, and fragile X syndrome—these devastating forms of mental retardation arise from defects in genes whose normal functioning is critical for learning and memory. From the moment of conception, children with these disorders face an uphill battle to overcome their inherited disadvantage. Can their environment help compensate for their being short-changed by Nature? Studies by Joe Tsien and his colleagues at Princeton University suggest that there is indeed cause for hope.

Tsien and colleagues capitalized on genetic engineering to construct a general mouse model for inherited learning defects—they created a mouse strain missing the NMDA receptor. In an additional refinement, Tsien and colleagues engineered their mouse so that the NMDA receptor was selectively lost in the hippocampus. As expected, in behavioral tests, these mice demonstrated a decrease in learning capacity in several tasks linked to hippocampal function, such as identifying new foodstuffs appropriately, recognizing objects, and recognizing their environment (38).

The investigators then set out to determine if enriching the animals' environment could help compensate for their inborn loss of learning capacity. In their studies, they made the important discovery that raising these animals in an environment rich in sensory stimuli, toys, and opportunities for exploration resulted in a significant improvement in their learning capacity. These results are one of the most convincing demonstrations to date that an enriched environment can help overcome learning deficiencies, even those deficiencies arising from defects in the genetic hard-wiring of an individual.

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