Dec. 11 -- Could a cosmetic drug that has taken the country by storm help scientists figure out how to treat such disparate illnesses as Alzheimer's and strokes? Maybe, if you bring songbirds into the equation. Seriously.
Researchers at Wesleyan University are using botulinum toxin A, marketed under the name of Botox, to study how songbirds are able to pull off a unique miracle in the animal kingdom and regrow the brain cells that die as they age.
They are working under the hypothesis that the key to regeneration of neurons lies in singing, at least for the zebra finch, a small bird of Australian origin that spends its life trying to master the perfect song.
"We're basically asking the question, is it singing a correct song that matters in terms of regulating this process (of neuro-regeneration)?" says John Kirn, associate professor of biology and chair of the neuroscience and behavior department at Wesleyan.
Kirn has been at this for awhile now, especially since he and fellow researchers found that a songbird that has lost its hearing tends to sing less and less, and slacks off on adding new neurons to its brain. That finding raised an intriguing question. Is the process of responding to an auditory signal, namely the sound of its own song, the key to the finch's ability to regrow neurons?
The researchers figured that if they could just deaden the finch's hearing for awhile, they could measure the impact of that auditory feedback and perhaps find an answer to that crucial question. And that's where Botox comes in.
Botox removes wrinkles, at least temporarily, by relaxing certain muscles, and that has made the drug one of the hottest items in the field of cosmetics. Other researches across the country soon found several other uses for the muscle relaxant, including everything from treating migraine headaches to curbing an overactive bladder.
While it can be deadly if taken in high doses, a small amount can be effective in relaxing muscles, and that's just what the researchers at Wesleyan were looking for.