Scientists have isolated a gene in mice that works to give them "super memories" and reverses the course of several degenerative mental illnesses like Alzheimer's. And because of the similarity of mice and human brains, a powerful brain pill for humans may now not be far off.
The brains of both mice and humans release a gene known as PKR, which is triggered by the onset of Alzheimer's. But the newly discovered gene can apparently block PKR's release--a development that not only can reverse the course of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, but induces a state of "super memory" in the mice it has been tested on.
"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]," Maura Costa-Mattioli, who led the research study at Baylor University, told the Vancouver Sun. "And we did."
"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," added John Bell, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute who also contributed to the study.
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A virus is one form of stress that triggers PKR, but Alzheimer's patients' brains also experience PKR-releasing stress, said Bell, whose cancer research led him to create PKR-deficient mice which he shared with Costa-Mattioli's lab. Researchers found that when PKR is genetically suppressed in mice, another immune molecule, called gamma interferon, increases communication between neurons, improving memory and making brain function more efficient, Costa-Mattioli said.
Reportedly, when PKR is blocked, the gamma interferon can work more or less spontaneously to improve brain functions--and can be activated via a simple PKR-inhibitor injection into a mouse's stomach rather than through more conventional and drawn-out gene therapy. The possible application for humans would lead to something like taking a "brain pill" to treat diseases like Alzheimer's, or simply to give the memory a significant boost:
When the researchers tested the PKR-deficient mice in a series of memory tests, those mice were able to pick up on patterns and remember them on the first try, while the other mice needed days to figure out how to solve the puzzle. The PKR-deficient mice consistently showed significantly better memory and learning abilities than their counterparts.
Of course, Costa-Mattioli said the goal is not to create a new society of super-memory powered people.
"Let's say we'd compare with Viagra. People use Viagra at whatever age, let's say 60, 65. But someone (who) is 40 goes to buy it, they can get it," he said. "But this is not our goal . . . Our goal would be to treat people who have a memory problem."
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