Sunday, November 19, 2006

Improving your memory

Who wouldn't like to have a better memory? Probably nobody, except maybe Solomon Shereshevskii or the fictional Ireneo Funes.

Neuroscientists are coming up with various small steps towards better memory:

Scientists Use Gene Therapy To Improve Memory And Learning In Animals
Stanford University neuroscientists have designed a gene that enhances memory and learning ability in animals under stress. Writing in the Nov. 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, the Stanford team says that the experimental technique might one day lead to new forms of gene therapy that can reduce the severe neurological side effects of steroids, which are prescribed to millions of patients with arthritis, asthma and other illnesses.

"Steroids can mess up the part of the brain involved in judgment and cognition," said neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, co-author of the study. "In extreme cases it's called steroid dementia. Ideally, if you could deliver this gene safely, it would protect the person from some of these cognitive side effects, while allowing the steroid to do whatever helpful thing it should be doing elsewhere in the body."

Unfortunately, gene therapy is (at least presently) rather a drastic technique:
[T]his type of gene therapy will not be medically available until scientists figure out a way to safely deliver the chimeric gene to humans, Sapolsky said. He also noted that the treatment should be used to prevent severe neurological side effects caused by medication and should not be given to those who simply want to enhance their short-term memory and learning skills. "You can't drill into people's heads and inject a virus just because somebody has a big exam coming up, " he said.

OK, so maybe it's back to the drawing boards. Here's something that, at least, doesn't require a Black & Decker:

A Stimulating Slumber
Each night as you sleep, your brain buzzes with electrical activity. Neuroscientists suspect that that this activity helps solidify memories formed during the day. Now, they've bolstered their case: for the first time, researchers have shown that electrically stimulating the brain during sleep can enhance memory performance the following day.

We might call that a "proof of concept". Looks a little better, but still sort of cumbersome. However, if you're taken with the idea there are more references on the study here and here.

OK, guys, let's try once more. Can't we do just a little better? Maybe:

Hopkins researchers discover how brain protein might control memory
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have figured out how one particular protein contributes to long-term memory and helps the brain remember things longer than an hour or two. The findings are reported in two papers in the Nov. 9 issue of Neuron.

The protein, called Arc, has been implicated in memory-linked behaviors ranging from song learning in birds to rodents being aware of 3-D space.

It turns out that this Arc protein works indirectly by controlling a couple of other proteins:
To figure out what Arc was doing, the Hopkins team looked for what other proteins Arc "plays" with. Using Arc protein as bait, they went on a molecular fishing expedition in a pond filled with other proteins normally found in the brain and hooked two known to be involved in transporting materials into and out of cells.

"Moving things in and out of cells is critical for normal brain cell function. We were extremely excited that Arc might somehow be involved in this transport because it links transport to memory formation," says Worley. "This brings us one step closer to understanding how the brain saves memories."

According to Worley, memories form when nerve cells connect and "talk" to other nerve cells. It's thought that the stronger these connections are, the stronger the memory.

Bueno. Muy bueno. Unfortunately, proteins don't work very well when delivered in pill form. (The stomach tends to digest them.) But perhaps we're getting closer to something that will help you pass that bar exam.

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