Sunday, July 5, 2009

Who wants a memory booster?

One of my first posts was about erasing memories. That may be useful if you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or if you just sat through the last installment of the Transformers movies, however, I can think of more people who would benefit from memory enhancement rather than memory erasure. One recent publication in Science hints that this may be just around the corner.

First, how do we know what animals remember? One way to test memory in rats is by using object recognition. You present the rat with two identical objects and let the animal explore them for a few minutes. Then you replace one of the objects with a new object, and typically, the rat will spend more time exploring the new object than the old one (presumably because the rat remembers the old one). By testing rat visual memory performance using this simple paradigm, the researchers established that rats were able to retain information about an object for up to 45 minutes, but after 60 minutes the objects were forgotten and treated as new unknowns. The researchers then injected a special protein in a specific part of the rat’s visual cortex, a part of the brain that is important for processing visual information. Following the injection, the rats were tested again for object recognition, and low and behold, the rats were now able to remember object information for longer than 45 minutes. How much longer? 60 minutes? 100 minutes? 1000 minutes? Actually it was 14 months. The rats went from being able to remember an object for 45 minutes to being able to remember it for 14 months.

Now the relevance of this article mainly lies in the identification of the function of a part of the visual cortex. To confirm their findings, the researchers took control rats (that didn’t receive the special drug) and inactivated the brain cells in the section of interest of the visual cortex (ok, they destroyed them). Those rats couldn’t remember objects at all. Interestingly, the researchers also showed that if you inject the special drug, then introduce a new object, and then destroy the brain cells, the rats will still remember the object for a long time, meaning this specific region of the visual cortex is important for making new memories but not for storing those memories. These are all important findings that further our understanding of visual memory.

But 14 months?? Surely this kind of memory enhancement won’t go unnoticed. The researchers claim that “the role of the RGS-14 protein in the enhancement of visual memory makes this protein an important pharmaceutical target for the treatment of (...) memory defects as well as for boosting the memory capacity”. That being said, I don’t think this drug will hit the shelves anytime soon. First, in the article, the researchers have to inject it directly into a specific brain region, and I certainly wouldn’t volunteer for that. Second, the drug affects an important, ubiquitous protein with many functions, and it’ll be a while before we tease out all the potential pitfalls of toying with something like that.

Regardless, with the aging population and the ever-increasing need (or want?) for maximum brain performance, there is a huge market for memory enhancers and the race is on to develop the first one. Now is the time to ask and answer all the ethical questions that surround this issue. If you had access to memory enhancers, would you use them? What if they were really expensive? What if they had detrimental side effects? What if they had detrimental side effects and everyone in school or work used them to enhance their performance relative to people who don’t use them (Tour de France, anyone?)?

Memory enhancers: useful drugs or can of worms?

The object recognition task

Reference: Role of layer 6 of V2 visual cortex in object-recognition memory. Lopez-Aranda, M.F., Lopez-Tellez, J.F., Navarro-Lobato, I., Masmudi-Martin, M., Gutierrez, A., Khan, Z.U. Science 2009 325:87-89.

3 Responses to “Who wants a memory booster?”

You should totally have your blog entries syndicated in the national/regional/local newspapers for their science sections. Maybe a few magazines, too.

Oh, and you should have your own segment on CBC Newsworld and Radio 1.

And when they start looking for a new host for Quirks and Quarks, they should just give the job to you. Same goes for Daily Planet.

Anna said...

Wow, that raises a lot of tough questions, even if it would be cheap and free from side-effetcs.

We all have things we wish we could forget. We don't want those memories 100% erased, because we learn from them (see the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where people totally forget ex-lovers), but we want the time to heal our wounds.

Now imagine you stuff your brain with the protein for a study session and then something bad happens - you're scarred for life.

Still, the temptation is big, especially for elder people whose memory isn't what it used to be, and us grad students.

And yeah, your blog is too good to remain so little known! ;) (I found you through the Phorums and Piled Higher and Deeper.)

@ Michael: Thanks so much for your comment. It made my day when I first read it and every time I read after that, too. :) Glad you enjoy my geeky posts.

@ Anna: You're absolutely right when you say it's a very tempting concept for the elderly or people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. I imagine it would be hard to keep it at that, though... Thanks for your comment!

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