β-Carbolines (BCs) belong to the heterogenous family of carbolines, which have been found exogenously, that is, in various fruits, meats, tobacco smoke, alcohol and coffee, but also endogenously, that is, blood, brain and CSF. These exogenous and endogenous BCs and some of their metabolites can exert neurotoxic effects, however, an unexpected stimulatory effect of 9-methyl-β-carboline (9-me-BC) on dopaminergic neurons in primary mesencephalic cultures was recently discovered. The aim of the present study was to extend our knowledge on the stimulatory effects of 9-me-BC and to test the hypothesis that 9-me-BC may act as a cognitive enhancer.
We found that 10 days (but not 5 days) of pharmacological treatment with 9-me-BC (i) improves spatial learning in the radial maze, (ii) elevates dopamine levels in the hippocampal formation, and (iii) results after 10 days of treatment in elongated, more complex dendritic trees and higher spine numbers on granule neurons in the dentate gyrus of 9-me-BC-treated rats. Our results demonstrate that beyond its neuroprotective/neurorestorative and anti-inflammatory effects, 9-me-BC acts as a cognitive enhancer in a hippocampus-dependent task, and that the behavioral effects may be associated with a stimulatory impact on hippocampal dopamine levels and dendritic and synaptic proliferation.
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