Sunday, December 25, 2011

Genes responsible for memory formation found

We already possess a fair bit of knowledge about how memories are formed. It is known that brain structures such as the hippocampus are involved, and which processes underly the creation of memories. Now, a team of geneticists from MIT have discovered which genes are responsible for the formation of memory. This is an important discovery, as it might allow us to develop strategies to improve our memories, and counter neurodegenerative diseases that affect what we can remember, such as Alzheimer's disease.
For their study, the researchers focused on a gene called Npas4, which was found to be the initiator of memory formation. It turns on a lot of other genes, which function predominantly in the hippocampus, the memory centre of the brain. While a lot of these genes do not have a specific function that links them to memory, they do play a role in the complex network of processes required to remember things. Npas4 initiates this by binding to a molecule that is needed to 'read' genes on the DNA, which effectively turns them on.

The main effect of Npas4 is alteration of the strength of the connection between brain cells, the so-called neurons. These cells communicate with each other by long white threads that carry electrical signals. We already know that memories are formed by connecting several neurons to each other, that together form a single memory, with all the required information. Npas4 is predominantly active in a part of the hippocampus that is associated with fast learning, further reinforcing it's important role in memory formation.

Memory mark
More proof of the instructive role of Npas4 came from its early onset during memory formation, indicating that activation of the gene is in fact the switch to start forming memories. The question is whether Npas4 also plays a role in retrieval of memories. If this happens to be the case, we can pinpoint where a particular memory is stored. Scientists from MIT already revealed what it is we remember best. Apparently, pictures of people are easier to remember than pictures of landscapes.

Memories are very important. Without them, we can not learn anything, which means our lives would be much less successful. Sadly, there are various diseases that impair memory. Quite well known is Alzheimer's disease, which destroys the memory centre, before moving on to the rest of the brain. With the discovery of the Npas4 instruction set, we are able to further unravel what is that makes our brain form memories. In turn, we can use that to develop strategies to keep our memories, and their formation, intact. Maybe we can also improve our memory, which would enable us to learn things faster.

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