Thursday, April 5, 2007

152)Scientists find the key to memory; it involves proteins.

In an earlier post(no. 127) I talked about the versatility of proteins and also mentioned the role they play in memory formation:

The following article talks about the discovery of a protein that functions as a master molecular switch and how the amount of this protein in a cell is related(in this case inversely) to the efficiency of memory formation:

"What we have done is make a mouse that has a mutation in one gene and this gene makes a protein that controls the speed at which other proteins in the cells are made..."

Apr 05, 2007 12:06 PM
Sheryl Ubelacker
Canadian Press

Memory has been called "the sublime miracle" of the mind – and a team of Canadian scientists believes it has pinpointed what may be the molecular master switch that underlies our ability for long-term recall.

What's more, they hope their discovery will lead to a drug that can help people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, whose ability to remember is increasingly impaired.

The researchers, led by molecular biologist Nahum Sonenberg of McGill University, discovered that laboratory mice with a mutation to a certain gene have an enhanced ability to learn and remember compared to normal mice.

The gene in question normally increases levels of a natural memory-blocking protein. In the genetically altered mice, less of that inhibiting protein is produced, allowing the animals to process learning faster and to remember longer.

"What we have done is make a mouse that has a mutation in one gene and this gene makes a protein that controls the speed at which other proteins in the cells are made," Sonenberg said from Montreal. "When you have the mutation, you make less of a protein that inhibits learning and memory."

"Because you make less, you have a better memory."

The next step is to look for a compound that would mimic the effects of the gene mutation – in other words, a pill that boosts the ability to remember.

"If such a pill could be generated, it might provide a new method for treating people with memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer's," said Mauro Costa-Mattioli, a senior postdoctoral fellow in Sonenberg's lab. "While a drug that worked in this way wouldn't cure the disease itself, it might rescue the symptoms of memory loss."

Memories are formed when the repeated activation of brain cells leads to a strengthening of neural connections, or synapses, a process known as synaptic plasticity.

Both memory and synaptic plasticity have two components – one that allows short-term memory, lasting minutes to hours, and a second that follows repetitive training. The latter activates mechanisms that stabilize nerve connections, resulting in memory that lasts days, weeks or years.

To conduct their study, published in Friday's issue of the journal Cell, the scientists compared the performance of mice with the altered gene to normal mice in a series of standard lab tests.
One of those tests involves teaching the animals to locate a platform hidden in a maze set up in a water tank. After six days of training, the normal mice were able to swim to the platform in about 50 seconds, guided by a series of symbols on the walls and ceiling of the maze the animals had seen while learning to navigate the course.

"Now if you take the `smart mouse,' as we call it, you cut it (the time) in half," said Sonenberg of the genetically altered animals. "Now it's about 25 to 30 seconds. So it's better than the normal mouse."

"In all these tests, the genetic mice had better memories. They learned faster."

Dr. Weihong Song, Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer's Disease at the University of British Columbia, said scientists have known for some time that gene expression and proteins are involved in memory formation and learning, but the basic mechanisms have not been fully defined.

"I think this is a great paper and a great finding and a very good step in the right direction," Song said from Vancouver. "It demonstrates that one of the molecules has a major effect on memory formation and in particular in long-term memory."

"And it gives us some clues how to design some of the (compounds) that maybe can be used as memory-enhancing drugs, which will benefit some of the memory-related disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and other aging-related dementias."

Being able to tinker with the molecular master switch for long-term recall also raises the notion of a pill to ramp up memory capacity in the average person.

But Sonenberg said that idea has to be approached with caution, since the molecule being targeted plays myriad other roles in the body, including in organs such as the pancreas and liver.

"With Alzheimer's (patients), they have a severe block in memory, and if you can increase it by even 10 or 20 per cent . . . it would be a huge benefit," he said.

"For the average person, it could be a benefit, but we don't know. That's why we have to do research."

Post-article comment:
The above basic and clinical scientific research on memory and memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer's disease can only be carried out with proper funding and one prolific fundraiser for this and other related types of research, we all know, is Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Ismaili Mail carried two articles about her humanitarian activities:


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3