Groundbreaking research on a brain protein called kalirin is opening a new door for novel ways to address serious mental health disorders, addiction problems, as well as another angle on the prevention of Alzheimer's disease.
Within your brain is a dense network of information highways. Technically, these are called dendritic spines and they allow information to travel from one neuron to another. Without enough kalirin you cannot form and maintain dendritic spines in the proper way. This leads to significant mental health issues and cognitive dysfunction, as the lack of highways causes plenty of traffic jams and breakdowns in proper nerve transmission.
Kalirin research is in its infancy. Some of the pioneering work in this field is being done at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Their research has engineered a mouse to lack kalirin, and that mouse predictably develops schizophrenia at the equivalent time as humans (teenage or young adult years). Autopsies have already shown that the prefrontal cortex of humans with schizophrenia are lacking in kalirin.
Additionally, Alzheimer's patients lack kalirin. In fact, adequate kalirin is vital for learning anything and is required for the synaptic plasticity of a healthy nervous system. I believe this information is profound and applies to anyone struggling with any type of mental health issue.
One of the first published studies on kalirin was back in 1999. It showed that one role of kalirin was to buffer or prevent the activation of iNOS (inducible nitric oxide) in your brain. In general, iNOS activating in your brain is associated with high stress, especially when it feels like your brain is on fire or that a "thunderstorm" is moving through it. This can be caused by traumatic life events in anyone.
However, let's take the example of someone who drinks too much alcohol or is hooked on excess brain stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, and/or speed-related drugs or prescriptions). The over-use of these substances will hyper-excite nerves cells and kill them - substances acting as excitotoxins. It is very clear in the literature that a primary way nerve cells are killed during excitotoxic damage is through the activation of excessive iNOS.
One role of kalirin will be to attempt to buffer the excitotoxic damage by binding to iNOS and neutralizing it. However, using up kalirin in this way will leave the person lacking kalirin, meaning that existing nerve connections will now not be repaired and the person's brain will start feeling pain and dullness as a baseline of feeling - i.e., poor mood or prone to feeling depressed.
This leads to repeated use of whatever the substance may be to ease the brain pain. However, the short term better feeling is easily offset by further damage to brain cells, further depleting kalirin. This means that the use of addictive substances will be an eventual path to more serious mental health problems.
Individuals who are able to get off an addictive substance(s) will often feel for months like a tornado has gone through their brain and flattened everything - which is a fairly accurate analogy. Young people going through addiction problems are at high risk for developing serious depression and schizophrenic symptoms, if not full blown schizophrenia.
I'm not saying that addictive substances are the only path to schizophrenia, as any inflammatory problem could be the cause. I'm just saying that addictive substances are a fast track to hell especially if the person has a bad mental health family history.
The current treatment for schizophrenia, antipsychotic medications, do not solve the source of the problem. In some cases they can make a person less agitated and reduce hallucinations and the severe disconnect from reality - but these drugs do not improve working memory, the ability to think clearly and be responsible their own actions, or social appropriateness. Of course, these medications carry a high risk for obesity, type II diabetes, and with long term use heart disease - a difficult risk/benefit equation.
The hope is that by boosting up and maintaining the level of kalirin a person could make a recovery not only from the cliff they are standing on the edge of, but also from the "need" to use substances to feel better.
While there is no specific nutrient that is proven to boost kalirin levels at this time, there are some things that can be done based on what we do know about kalirin.
Kalirin is intimately associated with learning. Just as a body builder must exercise muscles to build them up, so it is that a person low in kalirin must learn new things to stimulate the formation of new nerve pathways and connections that require kalirin. In other words, any time a person is learning then the production of kalirin is occurring or the learning wouldn't happen. We already know that numerous nutrients assist learning, such as B vitamins, DHA, acetyl-l-carnitine, and phosphatidyl serine. Thus, nutrients could be combined with the action of learning something new in a synergistic way to attempt to boost kalirin levels.
We also know that one of kalirin's jobs is to deactivate iNOS, and since we would rather that kalirin is used for learning and not defending the brain from excitotoxic stress, then we can help this out by taking nutrients known to lower iNOS. Interestingly, friendly nitric oxide (eNOS) is absolutely vital to nerve health. Nutrients like grape seed extract and resveratrol have a profound ability to favorably regulate nitric oxide and would be top choices to help calm brain inflammation. In theory, doing so would have the net effect of sparing kalirin to use for learning while the kalirin supply is being built back up over time.
It is also known that kalirin is needed for brain plasticity, which is needed for building new nerve networks. I have already written about this as it relates to stimulating the formation of new brain cells and their connections with BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). One way to stimulate BDNF is with aerobic exercise. Nutrients that help are pantethine, DHA, acetyl-l-carnitine, curcumin, and blueberries. Any time we improve brain plasticity we have to be improving kalirin.
A combination of learning, work or hobbies that use your hands to build things, mild aerobic exercise, a junk-food free diet, and good nutrient support is a real path to improving mental health issues - even serious ones. Having these basics working will help any counseling or stress management be more effective and lasting. It will take some time to put nerve connections back together again, but it can be done. It must be done.