A research team with the City University of Hong Kong has discovered a brain signaling molecule claimed to be the key to boosting brainpower and decision-making performance for people suffering from chronic visceral pain and brain diseases.

Led by Professor Li Ying of the CityU Department of Biomedical Sciences, the team’s groundbreaking discovery involves the role of astrocytes in brain and cognition dysfunction.

They found that L-lactate, an important energy substrate, could also improve decision-making performance and mitigate cognitive disorders as well.

Astrocytes, star-shaped cells in the central nervous system, are vital in regulating neuronal functions. Researchers with the university found that L-lactate released by astrocytes was utilized by neurons to facilitate information flow and synchrony in the brain’s neural circuitry.

The published data from their research show that impaired L-lactate release may be one of the factors in cognitive deficit common among patients suffering from chronic visceral pain.

The clinical connection between pain and increases in levels of anxiety, depression and cognitive disorders such as impaired decision-making has long been recognized.

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Astrocytes, star-shaped cells in the central nervous system, are vital in regulating neuronal functions. Photo: Handout

“The novelty of our study is the role of L-lactate in neuronal activity plasticity and neuronal network synchrony in the brain,” Li said.

The researchers’ animal experiments show that an L-lactate infusion into the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain increases the chance of good decisions – such as finding the right trays containing food – among normal lab rats by up to 48% and significantly relieves decision-making dysfunction in rats with chronic visceral pain.

By conducting experiments, the team also investigated whether the activation of astrocytes could mitigate decision-making deficits in rats with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The findings reveal that L-lactate should no longer be considered simply as an energy substrate for neurons, but rather an important signaling molecule that can regulate neuroplasticity and synchrony in the brain neural circuitry,” Li said.

“In addition, using L-lactate infusion, optogenetic or chemical genetic technology to activate astrocytes in abnormal neural circuitry may help alleviate cognitive deficit,” he explained.

The article titled “Astrocytic L-lactate Signalling Facilitates Amygdala-Anterior Cingulate Cortex Synchrony and Decision Making in Rats” was published recently in Cell Report, a prestigious life-sciences journal.

“It is possible that there are pathological decision-making deficits in other disease conditions, such as brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease,” Li said. “The mechanism responsible for decision-making deficits in specific pathological conditions is an important but complicated area of research.”

His team aims to further their study of the effects of L-lactate on cognitive functions such as learning, memorizing, decision-making and perception of pain.