Scientists have identified a gene in mice which helps to give them "super memories." The gene also reverses the course of degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer's. Scientists hope to apply the new discovery to develop a pill to enhance human memory.
According to the scientists, brains of human beings and mice are similar in many ways. Both have a molecule called PKR. The Montreal Gazette reports PKR is an immune molecule known to signal viral infections to the brain. According to John Bell, senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, "We recognize that PKR plays a dual role, one in regulating simple everyday processes like the way neurons talk to each other (for) memory, but also has a stress response."
Scientists say the newly discovered gene in mice appears to block the release of PKR. This helps to reverse the course of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and can also induce "super" memories in mice. The researchers are hoping they will be able to induce similar effect in humans.
Maura Costa-Mattioli, who led researchers at Baylor University, said: "If we were to find an inhibitor, a molecule, a drug that will specifically block PKR, we should be able to do the same [in humans]...And we did."
Daily Mail reports that the researchers developed a PKR-deficient mice. They found in this strain of mice another immune molecule called gamma interferon which increased communication between the neurons, improved memory and enhanced efficiency of brain function.
Interferon, the scientists found, worked spontaneously to induce brain function when PKR is blocked. The gamma interferon could also be activated by a simple PKR-inhibitor injected into the mouse's stomach. The method involving injection of a PKR-inhibitor into the mouse in place of the more complex gene therapy procedure is thought to hold promise for developing a "brain pill" for treatment of Alzheimer's disease. The pill may also be useful in people without Alzheimer's disease, simply as a shot to boost memory function.
The Montreal Gazette said that Kresimir Krnjevic, a professor emeritus in neurophysiology at McGill, said the linking of PKR and gamma interferon which enhances memory and learning abilities is of particular interest.
When PKR-deficient mice were administered series of memory tests, they were better able to recognize patterns compared to other mice. The PKR-deficient mice showed significantly better memory and learning abilities.
Daily Mail reports that Costa-Mattioli described one of the tests: "For instance, when the authors assessed spatial memory through a test in which mice use visual cues for finding a hidden platform in a circular pool, they found that normal mice had to repeat the task multiple times over many days in order to remember the platform's location. By contrast, mice lacking PKR learned the task after only one training session."