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Journal of Neurotrauma
J Neurotrauma. 2009 April; 26(4): 613–625.
PMCID: PMC2848830

This article has been retractedRetraction in: J Neurotrauma. 2015 June 01; 32(11): 863    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Environmental Experience Modulates Ischemia-Induced Amyloidogenesis and Enhances Functional Recovery


In this study, we examined whether ischemia-induced amyloidogenesis could be modulated by environmental “experience,” and whether this modulation is associated with improved cognitive functioning. Rats were subjected to either global ischemia or sham surgery and then were randomly assigned to either enriched environment housing (EE) or socially paired housing (controls). After 14 days of differential environmental housing, the rats were tested in the water maze. Our results show decreased C-terminal fragments of the β-amyloid precursor protein (βAPP) and decreased amyloid beta (Aβ) load in the ischemic EE rats compared to the ischemic control animals. In addition, Aβ oligomerization was significantly decreased in the ischemic EE animals compared to the ischemic control rats. Further, significantly increased levels of neprilysin, but not insulin-degrading enzyme, amyloid-degrading enzymes, were seen in the ischemic EE rats compared to the ischemic control animals. Behavioral analyses showed that ischemic EE rats performed significantly better on the memory task compared to the ischemic control group. These results suggest that use of multi-sensory environmental enrichment following cerebral ischemia may reduce the accumulation of Aβ peptide in the more pathologic oligomeric form, and consequently may enhance functional recovery.

Key words: Aβ oligomers, β-secretase amyloid cleaving enzyme (BACE), enriched environment, learning and memory, water maze


Cerebral ischemic injury results in increased intra-axonal β-amyloid precursor protein (βAPP) levels and promotes the accumulation of the Aβ peptide in the human brain (Kalaria et al., 1993a; Smith et al., 2003). In rodents, the βAPP level also increases in the brain after cerebral ischemia (Banati et al., 1995; Kalaria et al., 1993b; Pluta, 2002; Popa-Wagner et al., 1998), and evidence of increased Aβ deposition is present as well (Ishimaru et al., 1996; Nihashi et al., 2001; Popa-Wagner et al., 1998). Increased βAPP expression is localized in axonal swellings, dystrophic neurites, and neuronal perikarya along the periphery of the infarct at 4 and 7 days after ischemic injury (Kalaria et al., 1993a). Meanwhile, accumulation of Aβ in ischemic injury is seen mainly in the infarct core approximately 1 week after ischemia (Popa-Wagner et al., 1998).

Evidence for the role of βAPP in physiologic functioning suggests its involvement in the regulation of neuronal growth and survival (Mattson, 1997; Selkoe et al., 1997). However, its role in central nervous system (CNS) pathology is still not completely understood. Normal processing usually leads to the cleavage of βAPP in the middle of the β-amyloidogenic sequence, resulting in the generation of the secreted form of βAPP (Popa-Wagner et al., 1998; Selkoe et al., 1997). On the other hand, the presence of CNS pathology is believed to lead to alternative processing initiated by the β-secretase amyloid cleaving enzyme (BACE), resulting in the production of the carboxyl-terminal portion of βAPP, and the liberation and accumulation of Aβ oligomers, which can be neurotoxic (Cleary et al., 2005; Klyubin et al., 2005; Popa-Wagner et al., 1998; Wen et al., 2004). Furthermore, the carboxyl-terminal fragment of βAPP is shown to destabilize calcium homeostasis and renders neuronal cells vulnerable to glutamate-induced excitotoxicity (Kim et al., 1998).

One strategy that may moderate the increased Aβ production and oligomerization seen in cerebral ischemia is enriched environment (EE) housing. EE housing is a behavioral paradigm that involves the use of multi-sensory stimulation. Compelling evidence exists demonstrating the effects of EE housing on increased neuronal activity, leading to changes in dendritic branching, spine density, and the number of synapses in the visual and motor cortices (Briones et al., 2004a; Greenough and Volkmar, 1973; van Praag et al., 2000; West and Greenough, 1972), as well as turnover of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine (Escorihuela et al., 1995; Jones and Schallert, 1992). In traumatic head injury, EE housing has beneficial effects not only in aiding functional recovery (Hicks et al., 2002), but also in decreasing lesion size (Passineau et al., 2001), promoting the survival of progenitor cells (Gaulke et al., 2005), and increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Chen et al., 2005) and dopamine levels (Wagner et al., 2005). Because of the combined evidence that shows the effects of EE housing in increasing neuronal activity, and that neuronal activity can affect the processing of βAPP (Kamenetz et al., 2003), we examined if ischemia-induced increase in Aβ burden can be modulated by “experience” in an enriched environment. We also examined whether the modulation of Aβ load by environmental experience is associated with the amelioration of ischemia-induced cognitive impairment.


Cerebral ischemia

The four-vessel occlusion method was used to induce transient global cerebral ischemia as described previously (Briones et al., 2004b). Adult male Wistar rats 3–4 months of age (body weight 350–375 g at the time of surgery) were used in the study. Briefly, rats were anesthetized with an isofluorane/oxygen (2.5% isofluorane and 30% oxygen) mixture on the first day and an incision was made to isolate both common carotid arteries. Immediately following isolation of both carotid arteries, the vertebral arteries were electrocauterized in the alar foramina at the level of the first cervical vertebra. Body temperature was maintained at 37–37.5°C with a heating pad during the surgical procedure and until the animals were fully recovered. The next day, both common carotid arteries were occluded for 12 min while the animals were awake. This period of carotid occlusion was used because it results in damage confined to the hippocampal area (Briones et al., 2005; Briones et al., 2000). The criterion used to determine transient global cerebral ischemia was the bilateral loss of the righting reflex within 2 min of occlusion. Animals that developed postoperative complications such as excessive weight loss (>20% of preoperative body weight, n = 2) were excluded from the study. In addition, pain level was assessed by observing for sluggishness, extreme aversion to being touched, and weight loss. The animals were not given any postoperative analgesia but were euthanized immediately when persistent pain was observed (n = 1). A total of 48 animals were included in the study. Sham-operated animals were subjected to the same anesthesia and surgery that consisted of a neck incision without carotid manipulation and an incision behind the occipital bone without cauterization of the vertebral arteries. All efforts were made to minimize animal distress and to reduce the number of animals used. Experimental protocols in this study were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and were in accordance with the National Institutes of Health guidelines.

Animal housing

After 3 days of recovery, the rats were randomly assigned to either EE housing or paired housing (controls). The rats remained in their assigned housing condition for 14 days. All animals were housed in the same room under a 12-h light:12-h dark cycle and had free access to food and water. Room temperature was maintained at 22 ± 2°C and the noise level was kept to a minimum. Animals in the EE group (n = 12 ischemic and n = 12 shams) were housed together in a sensory-rich living condition (a wire cage measuring 2 × 1 × 1.65 m) consisting of a variety of objects such as toys, wooden blocks, running wheels, acrylic glass tunnels, ladders, plastic castles, and swings, as described previously (Briones et al., 2004b). Approximately 8 rats (n = 4 ischemic and n = 4 shams) were kept in EE at one time. In addition, these rats were placed each day in an open field (1.2 × 1.2 × 1.2 m) with a novel arrangement of toys and objects and allowed to explore for 30 min while the objects in the home cage were being changed. Objects in both EE housing and the open field were changed daily to maintain novelty.

Animals assigned to the control (CON) group (n = 12 ischemic and n = 12 shams) were housed in pairs in standard laboratory cages (16.5 × 22.5 × 13.5 cm). Although rats in this group were able to observe the ongoing activity of the room, they did not receive any stimulation and contact was limited to daily handling and routine cage changing.

Behavioral testing

Spatial learning and memory were examined in the water maze after 14 days of differential housing as described previously (Briones et al., 2006a). During testing, the tub was filled with tepid water (22 ± 2°C) and made opaque by the addition of powdered milk. An inverted white flowerpot submerged 2 cm beneath the water surface served as the goal and the opaqueness of the water enabled the goal to be concealed. The pool was divided into 4 quadrants of equal surface area and the starting locations for testing were assigned north, south, east, and west. The goal was located in the middle of the northeast quadrant approximately 22 cm from the pool rim. The day before actual testing started, the rats were allowed a habituation swim for 10 sec without the goal. The constant water temperature and habituation swim were used to decrease animal stress associated with water maze testing. The animals received four trials a day for 4 consecutive days. The day after the spatial learning test, a probe trial of 60 sec without the goal was done to assess how well the rats remembered the location of the goal. The traditional measures of swim latency (time to reach the platform) and the path taken by the animals to locate the goal were recorded for the spatial learning and memory task. Furthermore, swimming speed (path length/swim latency) was recorded to assess the motor activity of the rats in performing the task. In the probe trial, the time spent on the previous goal location (correct target quadrant) was recorded. Search errors in the probe trial, which represent the number of entries made to incorrect quadrants in the pool, were recorded as well. An error was designated only if the rat's entire body (excluding the tail) was in an incorrect quadrant. All recordings were done by a video camera connected to an image analyzer (Water Maze Version 4.20, Columbus, OH). The animals were allowed to swim for a maximum of 180 sec per trial. This maximum limit was chosen to prevent fatigue. If an animal did not locate the platform within this time, the experimenter guided the rat to the platform, and it was given a swim latency score of 180 sec. Once the animals were on the platform, they were allowed to remain there for 20 sec to allow orientation to visual cues in the room.

Given that neurodegeneration in the retina and optic nerve (Davidson et al., 2000), as well as motor deficits (Bouët et al., 2007; Yi et al., 2007) can occur in cerebral ischemia, four cued-platform trials were given before behavioral testing to rule out impairments in vision and mobility. For these trials, the platform was placed in a quadrant different from that used during the behavioral testing and the goal was marked with a visible black cube.

Tissue preparation

The day after the completion of behavioral testing, all the rats were euthanized using CO2 inhalation, and the brains were removed, cut in half sagittally, and immediately placed in liquid nitrogen until processing. Half of the brain was used for Fluoro-Jade staining and immunohistochemistry while the other half was used for Western blot analysis. For all analyses, the entire hippocampus was examined.


Fixed brains (fixative was 4% paraformaldehyde in 0.1 M phosphate buffer, pH 7.3) were sectioned at 30-μm thickness using a cryostat. Tissue sections were obtained covering the entire hippocampal region in its rostro-caudal extension, and the free-floating sections were first treated with 0.3% hydrogen peroxide in PBS to inactivate endogenous peroxidase activity. After inactivation, the tissues were rinsed and placed in the blocking solution of 3% serum, 0.1% Triton-X, and 1% bovine serum albumin for 1 h, then washed in 0.1 M PBS (pH 7.3) followed by incubation for 48 h at 4°C with antibody recognizing either the: (1) N-terminal epitope of βAPP (mab22C11, 1:500; Chemicon, Temecula, CA), (2) cytoplasmic carboxyl fragment 643–695 of βAPP (clone 2.F2.19B4, 1:200; Chemicon), or (3) extracellular Aβ (mab4G8, 1:500; Signet Laboratories, Dedham, MA). The primary antibodies were detected using biotinylated IgG secondary antibodies (1:200; Vector Laboratories, Burlingame, CA) for 1 h at room temperature. The tissues were then washed and incubated in avidin-biotin complex (ABC kit; Vector Laboratories) for 1 h at room temperature. Immunoreactions were visualized by treatment of tissue sections with hydrogen peroxide and 3,3′-diaminobenzidine tetrahydrochloride in Tris buffer (pH 7.3) enhanced with nickel. After thorough rinsing, the tissue sections were mounted on gelatin-coated slides, dried, and cover-slipped. Tissues from all experimental groups were run simultaneously and under identical conditions to ensure reproducibility of results. In all immunohistochemical experiments, pre-dilution tests were done to ensure specificity of the antibodies and negative controls, involving deletion of the primary antibodies, and these were used to rule out any nonspecific interactions.

The stereological method of surface density (Sv) measurement was used to quantify βAPP immunoreactivity, wherein a set of test lines (cycloid arcs) was superimposed on light microscopic images and the intersections between the test lines and immunoreactive cells were counted. The surface density was then calculated using the formula: Sv = 2(I/L), where I is the total number of intersections summed over all samples (6 samples/animal were used), and L is the total length of the test line within the sample area (528 μm).

Amyloid load was determined by the quantification of the surface area covered by Aβ immunoreactivity using an area-fractionator grid defined by the StereoInvestigator (MicroBrightfield, Colchester, VT) computerized analysis system. This technique provided a methodical system for estimating the area occupied by Aβ by counting a regularly spaced fraction of the total hippocampal region. The counting frame was set to 80 × 120 μm, the scan grid 340 × 340 μm, and the Cavalieri grid spacing to 30 μm at 40× magnification. The percentage of coverage in four sections was averaged to obtain a final estimate of amyloid burden for each animal.

Western blot

Since the currently available commercial antibodies do not allow accurate quantitation of processed βAPP fragments by immunohistochemistry, Western blots were also used to detect mab22C11 antibody band size (1:1000); also, levels of BACE1 (1:50; Calbiochem, San Diego, CA) were detected and results were compared to NT- and CT-fragment expressions from immunostaining, respectively. Levels of Aβ-degrading enzymes were also examined using Western blot analysis. Dissected hippocampal tissues were homogenized in extraction buffer (50 mM Tris, pH 7.2), 150 mM NaCl, 5 mM EDTA, protease inhibitor mixture (Sigma, St. Louis, MO), and 100 mM phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride (Sigma) using glass microhomogenizers. Following addition of 1% SDS, the homogenates were centrifuged at 25,000 × g for 20 min. Aliqouts from the supernatant were removed for protein determination. The remaining supernatant was collected, mixed with solubilizer containing SDS, glycerine, EDTA, Tris, bromphenol blue, and dithiothreitol, boiled for 5 min at 95°C, and stored at −20°C until ready for use. Protein concentration in samples was determined using the BCA-Protein assay (Pierce, Rockford, IL). The primary antibodies used to determine levels of amyloid-degrading enzymes were anti-neprilysin (1:50; Novocastra Laboratories, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.) and anti-insulin-degrading enzyme (1:1000; Chemicon International, Temecula, CA).

Formation of Aβ oligomers was also examined by Western blot. After tissue homogenization as described above, some of the samples were removed for extraction of soluble amyloid peptide. Samples were centrifuged at 78,500 × g for 1 h at 4° and the supernatant was removed and processed as described above. The antibodies used were anti-6E10 (1:500; Signet Laboratories, Dedham, MA) to determine levels of Aβ monomers, and anti-A11 (1:200; Biosource, Carlsbad, CA) to determine levels of Aβ oligomers.

For Western blot analyses, equal amounts of protein (40 μg) from each rat were loaded and separated by SDS-PAGE in 8–16% acrylamide gradient gels. The protein bands then were electrophoretically transferred to nitrocellulose membranes (Amersham, Piscataway, NJ) using Towbin's buffer with 0.1 g/L SDS and 100 mL/L methanol added. After transfer, the membranes were stained with 0.5% Ponceau Red to visualize total proteins, then de-stained. Non-specific binding sites were blocked by incubation of the membranes for 1 h at room temperature in 5% powdered milk in Tris-buffered saline containing 0.5 mL/L Tween-20. After blocking, the membranes were incubated overnight at 4°C with gentle agitation in the primary antibody. The secondary antibodies used were horseradish peroxidase-conjugated immunoglobulin (Sigma) and the Super Signal chemiluminescence substrate kit (Pierce) was used to visualize immunoreactive bands. After visualization, the membranes were stained with Amido black to qualitatively verify protein loading. A series of dilutions were performed and immunoblotted for each antibody to establish that the relationship between protein band and intensity was linear over the range of band intensities observed in the samples. Band visualization was obtained by exposure of membranes to autoradiographic film (Kodak Biomax™; Eastman Kodak, Rochester, NY). Quantification of differences in protein bands between samples was done using densitometric analysis (Scion Image Beta 4.0.2, Frederick, MD). Reference proteins were not used for normalization because they have been reported to vary under certain experimental conditions (Bhatia et al., 1994; Thellin et al., 1999); instead, samples were analyzed in quadruplicate. Results of quadruplicate measurements were averaged and used as one individual data point for statistical analysis. Densitometric values were calculated as: density of sample band/density of background. The values obtained were then converted to percentage for the sham group, since EE housing did not have any significant effects on CT-βAPP expression, Aβ load, Aβ oligomerization, and levels of amyloid-degrading enzymes in the animals.

Fluoro-jade staining

To assess the degree of neuronal loss due to ischemia, tissue sections adjacent to the ones used for immunohistochemistry were stained with Fluoro-Jade. Sections were mounted on gelatin-coated slides, dried in a slide warmer, and then rehydrated in distilled water for 1 min, followed by descending grades of alcohol for 3 min. Once rehydrated, the slides were placed in a Coplin jar with 0.06% potassium permanganate for 15 min on a rotating platform. Pre-treatment with potassium permanganate was necessary to reduce background staining. After pre-treatment, the slides were rinsed in distilled water for 1 min and then transferred to the Fluoro-Jade staining solution (0.001% Fluoro-Jade in acetic acid) for 30 min, rinsed again in distilled water for 3 changes (1 min each), then air-dried. Finally, sections were immersed in Histoclear and cover-slipped using DPX mounting medium.

The stained sections were examined under an epifluorescence microscope (Nikon E800, Nikon, Melville, NY) with an FITC fluorescence filter cube, and counting of degenerated neurons was done in the hippocampus proper (regions CA1–CA3), but was restricted to the stratum pyramidale layer. The optical fractionator method in the StereoInvestigator computerized analysis system was used for quantitative analysis, and the sampling parameters used were as follows: counting frame area = 6200 μm2, area of the sampling fraction (ASF) =0.10 μm2 (dissector frame area/square of the distance between dissectors), section sampling fraction (SSF) = 0.125 (6 sections out of 48 total sections), the height of each dissector was 20 μm, the guard height was 0.5 μm, and the thickness of the sampling fraction (TSF) = 0.67 μm (dissector height/tissue section thickness). The total number of Fluoro-Jade–positive cells was then calculated as: the number of Fluoro-Jade–stained cells counted (ΣQ), multiplied by the inverse fraction of SSF, ASF, and TSF.

Statistical analysis

The SAS general linear model (SAS Institute, Cary, NC) procedures for two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) were used to examine effects of injury, differential housing, and injury and differential housing interaction. When appropriate, the SAS CONTRAST statement was used for planned comparisons of the effects of injury (ischemic groups versus sham groups), differential housing (EE versus CON), and the combination of injury and rehabilitation training (ischemic and differential housing versus sham and differential housing) on βAPP and Aβ immunoreactivity, and levels of BACE, neprilysin (NEP), insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE), Aβ oligomerization, time spent in the correct quadrant of the pool, and search errors in the probe trial. All slides used for analysis were coded to preclude experimenter bias. Meanwhile the behavioral data were analyzed using the SAS general linear model procedures for two-way ANOVA with repeated measures to determine differences in swim latency, path length, and swimming speed.


Neuron loss

Ischemia-induced neuronal loss was quantified in the Fluoro-Jade-stained tissues. As expected, ischemia resulted in selective neurodegeneration in the pyramidal neurons at the CA1 sector of the dorsal hippocampus with relative sparing of CA3 neurons, while no staining was evident in the ventral hippocampus (Fig. 1). No Fluoro-Jade-stained cells were seen in the sham-operated animals. The susceptibility of the CA1 region and relative antero-ventral gradient vulnerability of hippocampal neurons to cerebral ischemia as reported by others (Kirino, 2000; Wen et al., 2004), was further confirmed in this study; however, the mechanism(s) responsible for this differential neuronal vulnerability to ischemic injury is still poorly understood.

FIG. 1.
Representative photomicrographs of Fluoro-Jade-stained hippocampal neurons in the dorsal region. Brightly fluorescent cells are evident in the ischemic rats (right image), which denotes neurodegeneration. Meanwhile no fluorescent staining was seen in ...

Further examination of tissue sections revealed that histofluorescent labeling was brighter in the soma, with some staining observed in the dendritic processes. Quantifiable Fluoro-Jade-positive cells were seen mainly in the stratum pyramidale of the CA1 region. No significant differences were seen in the number of Fluoro-Jade-positive cells between ischemic rats in the EE group (1102 ± 155) and those assigned to the CON group (1094 ± 201), suggesting the reproducibility of the four-vessel occlusion procedure. Moreover, the lack of a significant difference in neuronal degeneration between the two groups suggests that housing animals in the enriched environment 3 days after reperfusion may not have an effect in “rescuing” neurons that are highly vulnerable to ischemia.

βAPP expression

Several studies reported that βAPP has both beneficial and toxic effects. Substantial evidence has demonstrated the involvement of βAPP in the regulation of neuronal growth and survival under normal conditions (Apelt et al., 1997; Huber et al., 1997). Additionally, both in-vivo and in-vitro studies showed that βAPP protects neurons against hypoglycemic, excitotoxic, and ischemic damage, suggesting its neuroprotective actions (Bowes et al., 1994; Meziane et al., 1998; Smith-Swintosky et al., 1994). Conversely, toxic effects of βAPP have also been reported (Banati et al., 1995; Kalaria et al., 1993b; Kim et al., 1998; Popa-Wagner et al., 1998; Yam et al., 1997). To determine whether differential expression of βAPP fragments results from ischemic injury, we examined the levels of N-terminal (NT) and C-terminal (CT) fragments of secreted βAPP. Surface density measurements from immunohistochemistry revealed that sham animals housed in EE and both ischemic groups had increased levels of NT-βAPP compared to the sham control group (Fig. 2A); and band size from the Western blot validated that the antibody used detected NT-βAPP fragments (Fig. 2B). Post-hoc comparisons showed no significant group differences in NT-βAPP levels between the sham EE animals and rats in both ischemic groups.

FIG. 2.
Surface density measurements of immunohistochemically prepared tissues showed that ischemic insult and EE housing increased the expression of βAPP N-terminal fragments (A) in the hippocampal area, and this was validated by Western blot band size ...

Levels of CT-βAPP and BACE1, on the hand, increased following cerebral ischemia, but not with EE housing alone. That is, increased CT-βAPP expression (Fig. 3A and B) and BACE1 levels (Fig. 3C) were seen in all ischemic animals compared to the sham groups. No significant differences were seen in CT-βAPP and BACE1 levels between the sham EE and sham CON groups, whereas comparison of the ischemic groups showed that CT-βAPP levels in the ischemic CON group were approximately 21% higher than those in the ischemic EE animals. Furthermore, the pattern of BACE1 expression seen in the ischemic rats was similar to that for CT-βAPP, suggesting that ischemia possibly enhanced cleavage of the full-length βAPP by the β-secretase complex, thus generating more carboxyl-terminal fragments. Taken together, these data suggest that EE housing has no discernable impact on expression of CT-βAPP and BACE1 under normal conditions. Pathologic conditions, on the other hand, can trigger increased secretion of CT-βAPP and BACE1; however, housing rats in EE after ischemia can decrease CT-βAPP and BACE1 expression. The combined data for NT-βAPP and CT-βAPP expression, as well as BACE1 levels, indicate the possibility that both EE housing and cerebral ischemia have direct but diverse effects on βAPP functioning, in that different processing pathways may be influenced, depending on the animal's physiological or pathological state.

FIG. 3.
Representative photomicrographs of βAPP C-terminal (CT) fragment staining (A). Cerebral ischemia resulted in increased expression of CT-βAPP fragments, but EE housing after ischemic injury modulated the levels of CT fragments (B). A similar ...

Amyloid burden, oligomerization, and neprilysin expression

There is substantial evidence suggesting that increased βAPP expression in cerebral ischemia leads to increased production and accumulation of Aβ. In the present study, we observed an increase in amyloid load in the ischemic animals compared to the sham animals (Fig. 4A), but providing enrichment during the recovery period after ischemic injury significantly reduced the amyloid burden in the hippocampus. The amyloid load in the hippocampus of ischemic CON rats was approximately 48% greater than that in the ischemic EE animals, suggesting that environmental enrichment was able to modulate the Aβ burden (Fig. 4A).

FIG. 4.
Representative photomicrographs of amyloid staining (A) showing the atypical plaques consistent with rat Aβ. Amyloid burden increased following cerebral ischemia (B), but EE housing after ischemic injury modulated the amyloid load (*p < 0.05, ...

Accumulation of the oligomeric form of Aβ peptide in the brain is currently considered a major risk factor for the onset of cognitive deficits (Cleary et al., 2005; Klyubin et al., 2005). Our results show that levels of Aβ oligomers were approximately 43% less in the ischemic EE rats, compared to the ischemic control group (Fig. 4C). Moreover, the decrease in Aβ oligomers in the ischemic EE rats coincided with a corresponding increase in monomeric Aβ peptides and reduction in total amyloid load (Fig. 4). No Aβ oligomerization was seen in the sham animals. These results suggest that the ischemia-induced amyloid burden may be comprised of both oligomeric and monomeric Aβ peptides, but housing rats in EE after injury may modulate Aβ peptide oligomerization.

Synthesis and degradation of Aβ may be an important factor in determining amyloid burden. It has been suggested that accumulation of Aβ may be explained by a reduction in the catabolic activity of Aβ-degrading enzymes such as NEP, IDE, and endothelin-converting enzymes 1 and 2 (Mouri et al., 2006). To assess the possibility that the reduction in amyloid load seen in the ischemic EE rats is a result of the activation of one of the classical Aβ degradation pathways, we examined levels of NEP and IDE in the hippocampus. No significant group differences were seen in levels of IDE (data not shown). However, a significant main effect of ischemia was seen in NEP in that ischemic animals demonstrated higher levels compared to the sham rats (Fig. 5). When levels of NEP were compared in the ischemic groups, the ischemic EE rats showed significantly higher levels than the ischemic CON group. No significant group difference was seen in the sham groups. These results suggest that cerebral ischemia increased the activity of the Aβ degradation pathway mediated by NEP, and that housing rats in EE may lead to decreased Aβ burden following ischemic injury. It is also possible that in the ischemic CON rats, the catabolic activity of amyloid-degrading enzymes may be overwhelmed by the increased production of Aβ so that NEP levels were depleted faster compared to the ischemic EE animals; thus resulting in increased amyloid burden.

FIG. 5.
Cerebral ischemia resulted in increased neprilysin levels, but housing rats in EE after ischemic insult modulated neprilysin depletion (*p < 0.05, F(3/44) = 8.05; **p < 0.01, F(3/44) = 10.02; ...

Behavioral performance in the water maze

After ensuring that visual skills were intact, the rats were tested in a series of water maze tasks designed to assess spatial learning and long-term memory of a fixed location. A significant within-subject effect was seen for swim latency across the test days given that all the rats learned to perform the task efficiently over the four testing days. An overall significant main effect of ischemia was also seen in swim latency (Fig. 6A), in that ischemic animals assigned to the CON group demonstrated longer mean swim latency overall compared to all groups. Additionally, a trend toward an interaction effect (F(3/44) = 5.78, p < 0.06) was seen between ischemia and EE in mean swim latency. Meanwhile, comparison of mean swim latency in the sham animal groups did not show significant differences across the test days.

FIG. 6.
Increased mean swim latency (A) and path length taken (B) was seen in the ischemic control animals compared to all the groups. Ischemic rats housed in EE performed as well as the shams in the behavioral task (*p < 0.05, F(3/44) ...

Measurement of path length also showed significant within-subject effect in which all rats showed a continuous decrease in the swimming distance covered to reach the platform across the test days. An overall significant main effect of ischemia was seen in which the ischemic CON animals frequently used the indirect path to reach the goal compared to all groups (Fig. 6B). More importantly, a significant interaction effect was seen between ischemia and EE housing in mean path length (F(3/44) = 8.90, p < 0.05), in which the ischemic EE rats performed as well as the sham animals across the test days. Comparison of path length in the sham groups showed no significant differences. Furthermore, comparison of swimming speed did not show significant group differences. Taken together, the swim latency and path length results suggest that the rats were able to determine their location in space, and adjust their behavior accordingly, suggesting some degree of spontaneous functional recovery; however, housing ischemic rats in EE may help enhance this spontaneous recovery.

On the fifth day of behavioral testing, a probe trial was performed for 60 sec wherein rats were placed in the water maze without the goal platform. Time spent swimming in the quadrant of the pool where the goal platform was located during the first 4 days of the trial (correct quadrant) was divided by the time spent swimming in the other 3 quadrants of the pool (wrong quadrants). In the probe trial (long-term memory recall phase) a significant difference was seen (Table 1), in that the ischemic CON animals spent less time in the correct target quadrant area where the goal was previously located and made more search errors compared to all groups. On the contrary, the performance of the ischemic EE rats in the probe trial was indistinguishable from that of the sham groups, suggesting that the ischemia-induced persistent memory impairment may be diminished by environmental enrichment.

Table 1.
Behavioral Measures in the Probe Trial


In the present study, we show that EE housing after cerebral ischemic injury significantly decreased the expression of the cytotoxic fragment of βAPP, reduces Aβ load and oligomerization of the Aβ peptide, increased the levels of NEP, and enhanced behavioral recovery. βAPP is a transmembrane protein with a long extracellular N-terminal and short intracellular C-terminal domain. βAPP is widely expressed in the brain, where its abnormal upregulation can lead to the accumulation of Aβ. Although it is possible that ischemia-induced accumulation of Aβ may be partly responsible for the loss of pyramidal neurons in the CA1 subfield of the hippocampus because of the peptide's ability to induce oxidative damage (reviewed in Perry et al., 2002), this is not supported by the findings in the present study. Our results show that the degree of cell loss in the CA1 subfield between the two ischemic groups are similar despite significant differences in amyloid load, and that the ischemic EE rats had lower levels than the ischemic CON rats. These results indicate that other mechanisms such as calcium-mediated glutamate excitotoxicity (Wahl et al., 2008) may be either directly or indirectly responsible for the neurodegeneration seen in the ischemic animals. But a more likely explanation is that when EE housing was implemented in the present study, ischemia-induced delayed neuronal death may have already occurred, particularly in the brain region most vulnerable to ischemic insult.

Our data demonstrate an EE-induced reduction in Aβ burden after ischemic insult, which parallels those of others that show decreased amyloid deposition after enriched housing (Lazarov et al., 2005) in a transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Whether enrichment is given in the form of novelty sessions (Lazarov et al., 2005) or use of continuous housing as in the present study, the effectiveness of environmental enrichment in reducing Aβ load is similar. In the present study, one possible mechanism that might account for the EE-induced reduction in Aβ load after cerebral ischemia may be related to the modulation of BACE1 and CT-βAPP fragment release. Because BACE1 is the major secretase enzyme responsible for cleaving the βAPP ectodomain to generate a C-terminus fragment, it stands to reason that a reduction in BACE1 level may then lead to decreased expression of CT-βAPP and a subsequent reduction in amyloid burden.

Since our data demonstrate that the NEP level but not IDE is elevated in the hippocampus of ischemic rats housed in EE compared to the ischemic CON animals or sham groups, it is possible that another mechanism underlying the EE-induced reduction in Aβ involves the activity of certain Aβ-degrading protease. Our findings are consistent with several in-vivo studies that demonstrate that ectopic overexpression of NEP in the brains of AD mouse models leads to the reduction in Aβ deposition and clearance of preexisting Aβ deposits (Iwata et al., 2004; Marr et al., 2003). NEP is capable of degrading the monomeric as well as the oligomeric forms of Aβ (Kanemitsu et al., 2003). Further support for the role of neprilysin in amyloid degradation is shown in a study that demonstrates increased Aβ accumulation in the hippocampus of rats that received thiorpan, a NEP inhibitor, infusion through the cerebral ventricles (Mouri et al., 2006). Therefore our study and those of others provide confirmation that NEP participates in the catabolism of Aβ in the brain, but the mechanism of how EE housing can increase NEP activity remains unclear.

The lack of a significant difference seen in the levels of IDE is puzzling. IDE is a small protein, ~110 kDa in size, that is a thiol zinc-metalloendopeptidase. IDE preferentially cleaves insulin, but it also cleaves other small proteins such as Aβ. The role of IDE in Aβ degradation is demonstrated in studies that show that genetic deletion of this protease in mice brains leads to excess amyloid accumulation (Farris et al., 2003; Miller et al., 2003). But in the present study, IDE did not have an effect on decreasing amyloid burden. A likely explanation for this lack of significance is that IDE's effects on Aβ may be nonspecific.

Another possible mechanism of EE-induced reduction in Aβ involves alteration in βAPP functioning. Our results show increased expression of NT-βAPP in both ischemic groups and in sham animals housed in EE, while increased CT-βAPP expression was seen only in the ischemic groups. Our βAPP results seen in sham animals housed in EE are hardly surprising since the enrichment paradigm is shown to induce plasticity-related events such as synaptogenesis and neurogenesis (Briones et al., 2004a; van Praag et al., 2000; West and Greenough, 1972), and NT-βAPP is reported to be involved in the regulation of neuronal growth and survival (Mattson, 1997; Selkoe et al., 1997). NT-βAPP is also implicated in potentiating the neurotrophic properties of growth factors via telomerase activity (an enzyme that is required for the long-term survival of post-mitotic neurons) (Fu et al., 2002). We also demonstrate an increase in NT-βAPP following cerebral ischemia, and these findings are similar to those of others (Badan et al., 2004; Banati et al., 1995; Kalaria et al., 1993b; Popa-Wagner et al., 1998), and may be indicative of a compensatory response to protect the brain from ischemic insult, since NT-βAPP appears to have growth-supporting properties.

The ischemia-induced increase in CT-βAPP expression seen in the present report is also in line with results of other studies (Badan et al., 2004; Kim et al., 1998; Popa-Wagner et al., 1998). It is believed that the generation of CT-βAPP is a pathological event because these fragments can promote synaptic degeneration and neuronal death (Qiao et al., 2001) by increasing the production of Aβ (Kim et al., 1998). More recent work shows that CT-βAPP induces the death of astrocytes, whereas the loss of neurons is a secondary consequence of the neuronal dependence on astrocytes for antioxidant protection (Abramov et al., 2003). Of possible relevance is our finding that the level of CT-βAPP is significantly lower in the ischemic EE rats in relation to the ischemic CON animals. Since we previously demonstrated that EE housing after cerebral ischemia increased the surface density of astrocytic processes in the hippocampus (Briones et al., 2006c), it is possible that the protective effects of enrichment against the toxic effects of CT-βAPP may be mediated by astrocytes. These data on C-terminal and N-terminal fragments when taken together suggest that cerebral ischemia can directly influence βAPP functioning, and that environmental enrichment strongly modulates the amyloidogenic pathway (an explanation also supported by data on BACE1 levels), decreasing the likelihood of release of the Aβ-bearing CT fragment, thereby reducing amyloid load.

Interestingly, our findings on Aβ load are in conflict with earlier studies that reported an increased amyloid burden after housing in an AD mouse model of EE (Jankowsky et al., 2005; Jankowsky et al., 2003). Meanwhile, other investigators reported no effects of environmental enrichment on amyloid burden (Arendash et al., 2004; Costa et al., 2007) in the AD mouse model. It is important to point out that there is a difference between these AD mouse model studies and the present study in that either female mice were placed in EE (Jankowsky et al., 2005; Jankowsky et al., 2003), or both male and female mice were housed together in the enriched environment (Arendash et al., 2004; Costa et al., 2007), while in the present report we used only male rats. Incidentally, there is a documented gender difference in Aβ deposition in AD, in which females usually have more amyloid load compared to age-matched males (Wang et al., 2003). It should also be noted that even though an EE-induced exacerbation in Aβ load has been reported in the earlier AD mouse model study (Jankowsky et al., 2003), some of the animals in the EE group showed lower Aβ levels than did the controls.

In the present study, the acquisition of memory (the first 4 days of testing) is conceptually distinguished from the ability to recall this memory at a later time point (probe trial). The steep learning curves in Figure 6 reflect the memory acquisition phase and how fast the animals learned the task. Even though all animals learned the task, our data show that memory impairment remains post-ischemic injury, but that housing rats in EE after ischemia may improve these cognitive deficits. It is important to note that the cognitive impairment in the ischemic CON rats seen during the early days of the trials was not related to deficits in motor function, since swimming speed, that measured motor activity, did not show significant group differences. These behavioral findings suggest that learning a simple task can occur, even if most of the hippocampal neurons were damaged; however, consolidation of learned information will likely be impaired. Our results on improved cognitive performance in the ischemic EE group in both the acquisition and recall phase of testing are consistent with those of earlier studies that demonstrated enhanced functional recovery when ischemic rats are housed in EE (Briones et al., 2000; Briones et al., 2006b; Puurunen et al., 2001; Puurunen et al., 1997). It is possible that the memory improvement seen in the ischemic EE group may be attributed to water maze testing and not the EE-induced Aβ reduction alone. But the fact that the ischemic CON rats showed impairment in the probe trial relative to the ischemic EE animals suggests that the improvement in memory deficits seen in this study are primarily due to the effects of enrichment. However, it is likely that the combination of EE housing after ischemia and behavioral testing may have profound effects in lowering Aβ levels, specifically the oligomeric form. Since both ischemic groups demonstrated increased amyloid load in comparison to the sham rats, the dramatic attenuation of cognitive impairment seen in the ischemic EE animals may be attributed to the decreased Aβ oligomerization. This line of reasoning is supported by studies indicating that extracellular accumulation of Aβ oligomers is largely responsible for the memory deficits seen in the AD mouse model (Cleary et al., 2005; Klyubin et al., 2005). In the present study, it is not possible to distinguish the independent effects of EE housing and behavioral testing on Aβ reduction and cognitive improvement, but it is important to examine this notion at a later date.

An unexpected finding in our behavioral data is the lack of significant differences in the performance of the sham EE and sham CON animals in both the acquisition and recall phases in the water maze. These findings are at odds with others that demonstrate better performance in the radial arm maze, water maze, and Hebb-Williams maze among normal rats housed in EE (Kobayashi et al., 2002; Leggio et al., 2005; Paganelli et al., 2004; Pham et al., 1999; Schrijver et al., 2004). A possible explanation for this difference in findings is that the place learning task in the water maze may lack sufficient complexity to detect subtle learning differences in normal animals, thus performance of both sham groups will likely be affected by a “ceiling effect.” But a more likely reason is that our behavioral results in the sham animals may have been confounded by the cued-platform trials given before behavioral testing.

In sum, the present experiments provide evidence that housing rats in EE after cerebral ischemia modifies βAPP functioning by reducing the accumulation of C-terminal stubs that can increase Aβ production. Also, evidence that CT-βAPP fragments decreased while NEP levels increased in the ischemic EE animals provides further support for the view that enrichment has Aβ-lowering properties. The relationship between an EE-induced increase in NEP levels and improvement in memory performance indirectly points to the importance of using Aβ-lowering strategies in mitigating amyloid-induced cognitive impairment. Specifically, the use of EE after cerebral ischemia may be a cost-effective strategy to modulate the oligomerization of Aβ peptides and promote functional recovery. Lastly, the increase in NT-βAPP seen in the EE-housed sham rats provides further support for its role in neural plasticity.


This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, NINR grant no. RO1 NR007666. We are grateful for the assistance of Maggie Wadowska in animal handling and tissue imaging. We would also like to thank Mai Nguyen for assistance in the analysis of behavioral data.

Author Disclosure Statement

No competing financial interests exist for all authors.


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