Archive for Friday, May 31, 2002

Gene research suggests memory stimulation possible

May 31, 2002


— Problems with a gene in a small sliver of the brain may contribute to "senior moments," the difficulty people have recalling once-familiar memories of everyday life, new research suggests.

In today's issue of the journal Science, researchers from Houston, Massachusetts and Japan report that mice missing the gene in a key memory center need a lot of hints to recall a memory.

Many older people, as well as those in early stages of Alzheimer's disease, have the same problem a familiar name (Doug) is on the "tip of their tongue," and they need an extra clue (rhymes with bug) to remember it.

The research suggests how scientists one day may develop a drug to help people recall these simple memories, although some scientists question whether a better memory makes for a better life.

"This would probably be decades away," said Susumu Tonegawa, the Nobel laureate and Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist who led the research. "But we are beginning to get some kind of handle to plan what direction we might take."

Memories are formed and stored with the help of a small area, nestled deep inside the brain, known as the hippocampus. In recent years, scientists have begun to scrutinize the cells and molecules of the hippocampus, and how they contribute to memory.

While scientists have shown that certain genes are necessary to form memories, the study is the first to implicate a gene in recalling memories.

"It is incredibly exciting," said Dr. Robert Malenka, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

"If you had asked brain scientists 10 to 15 years ago if we would be able to manipulate genes and affect memories in complicated ways, people would have looked at you like you were crazy. But we are beginning to do that."

Tonegawa, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his studies of immune system genes, and his colleagues are studying a gene that controls production of part of a brain cell component called the NMDA receptor.

These receptors are found where nerve cells meet; scientists think the receptors strengthen connections between cells, sealing memories in the brain.

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