Drugs could be used to boost memory by improving the connections between nerve cells in the brain, scientists have found. The researchers hope this could help with further understanding of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
The human brain contains trillions of neuronal connections called synapses, which control our cognitive functions, the study paper explains. These connections are constantly changing in their strength and properties, a process known as synaptic plasticity.
Alterations in these changes are thought to be responsible for multiple cognitive deficits, such as autism, Alzheimer's disease, and several forms of mental retardation.
The study found that this plasticity can be improved using a small protein fragment or peptide.
When this peptide was administered to rats, their ability to learn and retain spatial information was enhanced.
The study is the result of collaboration between researchers at The Centro de Biologia Molecular Severo Ochoa at the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED) in Spain, the Brain Mind Institute at the Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology at the Faculty of Health Sciences in Denmark.
Lead researcher Dr Esteban said: "We have known for three decades that synaptic connections are not fixed from birth, but they respond to neuronal activity modifying their strength.
"Thus, outside stimuli will lead to the potentiation of some synapses and the weakening of others."
He added: "These are basic studies on the molecular and cellular processes that control our cognitive function.
"Nevertheless, they shed light into potential therapeutic avenues for mental disorders where these mechanisms go awry."
The study, published in the journal PLoS Biology, suggests that cognitive function can be improved pharmalogically in adult animals by enhancing the plasticity of synaptic connections in the brain.
Professor Geraint Rees, director at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said, as reported by the Press Association: "This is exciting because it links the ability to modify particular types of synapse - the connection between nerve cells - to improved navigational ability.
"But it is important to remember that there are many differences between rats and humans, and so whether this has promise as a way of enhancing human cognitive abilities remains uncertain."
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at leading Alzheimer's charity, Alzheimer’s Research UK, said in a statement:
“Communication between nerve cells is vital, but gets lost in Alzheimer’s leading to symptoms such as memory loss and confusion. This study outlines details of a molecular mechanism in nerve cells which can enhance learning and memory and may hold potential for understanding diseases such as Alzheimer’s where these essential connections are lost.
“It’s a big challenge, but there is hope that by understanding the processes that control cognitive function, scientists could develop therapies to improve or maintain cognition in diseases like Alzheimer’s. This study used normal healthy tissue and so further work would be needed to look at the potential of the FGL protein in Alzheimer’s. With research into dementia so underfunded, and the number of people living with the condition increasing, it is vital that we increase funding for research into these devastating diseases.”