Saturday, 18 February 2012

Sweet memories

The biochemistry of memory involves teasing out the most intricate secrets at a molecular level.

In news just in, researchers at Caltech have apparently found evidence of the important role played on memory by a sugar with the name O-GlcNAc. In an experiment mice were investigated to see how well they could remember that a tone was associated with an "unpleasant stimulus".

I need to buy the research paper to find out what they did to the poor mice - usually an electric shock in these types of study - but whatever it was the mice were more likely to remember it two hours later if the sugar was prevented from attaching to transcription factor cyclic AMP–response element binding (CREB) protein. The axonal and dendritic growth that takes place in the brain to store memories was enhanced by blocking this process, known as glycosylation.

More succinctly put, the mice were more likely to remember if glycosylation of the CREB transcription protein was blocked.

More simply put, by me, the brain changes that happen when memories are stored were enhanced when this sugar wasn't messing things up.

The mice were judged to remember if they displayed defensive behaviour when hearing the tone, freezing in preparation for whatever that unpleasant stimulus was.

According to the report in Chemical and Engineering News the research "reveals a previously unknown sugar-based mechanism for regulating gene expression, neural development, and memory. It could lead to new ways to enhance memory or to reduce memory loss among patients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s."

Memory is mechanistic and so magic pills may provide benefits, particularly when the brain starts to go wrong. The sugar O-GlcNAc seems to be involved in many cell processes so I imagine that the process of preventing it from attaching to the CREB transcription protein does not rely on removing it from the body, but either providing something else that it is more prone to attach to, or something that will attach to the CREB instead without having an effect.

Pinning memory tags to my mental calendar results in me remembering better presumably because it too enhances axonal and dendritic growth in my brain. Whether my generally improving memory is due to this process blocking glycosylation of the CREB is another question. There are undoubtedly many other mechanisms at work of which I currently know nothing, but am now interested to learn about.

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