By Alicia Rose DelGallo, Ivanhoe Health Correspondent
(Ivanhoe Newswire) – A memory-enhancing drug has been discovered unexpectedly by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine. When the activity of a molecule, normally elevated during viral infections, is inhibited, mice learn and remember better, a recent article in the Journal Cell reported.
"PKR is a protein kinase which was originally described as a sensor of viral genome. We knew nothing about PKR’s role in brain processes," said Dr. Mauro Costa-Mattioli, assistant professor of neuroscience at BCM and senior author of the paper.
The activity of PKR is not only elevated during viral infections, but in a variety of cognitive disorders, leading researchers to take a closer look at its role in the brain, Costa-Mattioli said. These disorders include epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease.
The authors discovered that mice lacking PKR in the brain have a kind of "super" memory. For example, when they assessed spatial memory, the memory of people, places and events, the mice had to use visual cues to find a hidden platform in a circular pool. The normal mice had to repeat the task multiple times over many days to remember the platform’s location. In contrast, mice lacking PKR learned the task after only one training session.
"We found that when we genetically inhibit PKR, we increased the excitability of brain cells and enhanced learning and memory in a variety of behavioral tests," Costa-Mattioli was quoted as saying.
How exactly does the process work?
Costa-Mattioli and colleagues wanted to know the same thing. They found that when PKR is inhibited, the increased communication between neurons - or synaptic activity - is caused by gamma interferon, another molecule involved in immunity.
"These data are totally unexpected, and show that two molecules classically known to play a role in viral infection and the immune response regulate the kind of brain activity that leads to the formation of long-term memory in the adult brain," Costa-Mattioli was quoted as saying.
Another key finding made by the team was that the process could be mimicked by a PKR inhibitor – a small molecule that blocks PKR activity and thus acts as a memory-enhancing drug, according to the article.
"Whoever is able to enhance memory with a memory pill will change the world! I hope our studies will help slow down the memory problems associated to diseases but also those associated to aging," Costa-Mattioli explained.
There are roughly 6 million Americans and 35 million people world-wide with Alzheimer’s disease and over 70 million people over the age of 60 who suffer from memory impairment, the article states. A memory pill would have a profound impact in the lives of these people and communities.
"Our identity and uniqueness is made up of our memories. This molecule could hold the key to how we can keep our memories longer, but also how we create new ones," Costa-Mattioli said.
He also added that no side effects have been seen so far, but more experiments are necessary in animal models to rule out that possibility before human studies are started.
SOURCE: Cell, December 2011, e-mail interview with Dr. Costa-Mattioli held on December 7, 2011