Could a Dose of Sunshine Make You Smarter? | Department of Biological Sciences

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May 30, 2018

Could a Dose of Sunshine Make You Smarter?

Moderate ultraviolet light exposure boosts the brainpower of mice thanks to increased production of the neurotransmitter glutamate.

By Ruth Williams | May 17, 2018

The sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major cause of skin cancer, but it offers some health benefits too, such as boosting production of essential vitamin D and improving mood. Today (May 17), a report in Cell adds enhanced learning and memory to UV's unexpected benefits.

Researchers have discovered that, in mice, exposure to UV light activates a molecular pathway that increases production of the brain chemical glutamate, heightening the animals' ability to learn and remember.

"The subject is of strong interest, because it provides additional support for the recently proposed theory of ultraviolet light's regulation of the brain and central neuroendocrine system," dermatologist Andrzej Slominski of the University of Alabama who was not involved in the research writes in an email to The Scientist.

"It's an interesting and timely paper investigating the skin-brain connection," notes skin scientist Martin Steinhoff of University College Dublin's Center for Biomedical Engineering who also did not participate in the research. "The authors make an interesting observation linking moderate UV exposure to . . . [production of] the molecule urocanic acid. They hypothesize that this molecule enters the brain, activates glutaminergic neurons through glutamate release, and that memory and learning are increased."

While the work is "fascinating, very meticulous, and extremely detailed," says dermatologist David Fisherof Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, "it does not imply that UV is actually good for you. . . . Across the board, for humanity, UV really is dangerous."

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