New research is offering clues about what’s happening in the brains of people with Down syndrome and why they often appear to age more rapidly than others.

Many individuals with Down syndrome get gray hair, wrinkles and even develop Alzheimer’s disease in their 40s. Researchers say they now have more evidence that the cause of this accelerated aging could be a high level of what’s known as oxidative stress in the neurons of those with the chromosomal disorder.

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers took skin cells from individuals with Down syndrome which they transformed in order to grow brain cells. Doing so allowed the scientists to observe how brain cells in those with the chromosomal disorder develop from the start.

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They found that communications between brain cells in those with Down syndrome are occurring at just 60 percent of the level seen in typically developing individuals. Meanwhile, those with the chromosomal disorder had significantly more genes designed to respond to oxidative stress — which occurs when there is tissue damage — and these genes were present from day one in the cells studied, the researchers indicated.

“This suggests that these cells go through their whole life with oxidative stress … and that might contribute to the death of neurons later on, or increase susceptibility to Alzheimer’s,” said Anita Bhattacharyya, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who worked on the study.

The finding is significant, Bhattacharyya says, because scientists may now be able to use the brain cells they’ve grown to test or design drugs to potentially treat symptoms of Down syndrome.

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