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.  

May 17, 2018
Ruth Williams

iSTOCK, VIORIKAThe 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 Fisher of 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.”

Wei Xiong of the University of Science and Technology of China who led the research did not set out to investigate the effects of UV light on the brain or the skin-brain connection. He stumbled upon his initial finding “almost accidentally,” he explains in an email to The Scientist. Xiong and his colleagues were using a mass spectrometry technique they had recently developed for analyzing the molecular contents of single neurons, when their results revealed the unexpected presence of urocanic acid—a little-known molecule produced in the skin in response to UV light.

“It was a surprise because we checked through all the literature and found no reports of the existence of this small molecule in the central nervous system,” writes Xiong.

With little information to go on, Xiong and his colleagues decided to see whether UV light could also boost levels of urocanic acid in the brain. They exposed shaved mice to a low-dose of UVB—responsible for sunburn in humans—for 2 hours, then performed mass spectrometry on the animals’ individual brain cells. Sure enough, levels of urocanic acid increased in neurons of the animals exposed to the light, but not in those of control animals.

Urocanic acid can absorb UV rays and, as a result, may be able to protect skin against the sun’s harmful effects. But in the liver and other peripheral tissues, the acid is also known to be an intermediate molecule generated in the metabolic pathway that converts histidine to glutamate. Given glutamate’s role in the brain as an excitatory neurotransmitter, Xiong and his colleagues were interested to test whether the observed UV-dependent increase in urocanic acid in neurons might be coupled with increased glutamate production. It was.

Next, the team showed that UV light enhanced electrical transmission between glutaminergic neurons in brain slices taken from animals exposed to UV, but not in those from control animals. This UV-induced effect was prevented when the researchers inhibited activity of the enzyme urocanase, which converts urocanic acid to glutamate, indicating that the acid was indeed the mediator of the UV-induced boost in glutaminergic activity.

Lastly, the team showed that mice exposed to UV performed better in motor learning and recognition memory tasks than their unexposed counterparts. And, as before, treating the animals with a urocanase inhibitor prevented the UV-induced improvements in learning and memory. Administering urocanic acid directly to animals not exposed to ultraviolet light also spurred similar learning and memory improvements to those achieved with UV exposure.

Whether the results obtained in mice, which are nocturnal and rarely see the sun, will hold true in humans is yet to be determined. But, Fisher says, if the results do hold, the finding that urocanic acid alone can enhance learning and memory might suggest “a way to utilize this information to benefit people without exposing them to the damaging effects of UV.”

H. Zhu et al., “Moderate UV exposure enhances learning and memory by promoting a novel glutamate biosynthetic pathway in the brain,” Cell, doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.04.014, 2018.