Monday, June 8, 2009
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Memory Research Yields Exciting Possibilities
By TED RUHIG
We used to be who our memories remembered us to be. But in the not-so-distant future this may no longer be the case. Research is now going on to identify the molecular basis for long-term memory.
By probing the brain, scientists are beginning to find out what memory consists of. In so doing, the following picture of our future emerges: Scientists can erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. In so doing, they can make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss or even a bad habit.
Researchers at State University of New York Medical Center in Brooklyn have recently accomplished this feat with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, such as emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.
The drug blocks the actions of a substance the brain needs to keep such learned information alive. If enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.
The discovery of such an apparently critical memory molecule and its many potential uses are part of a field that, in just the past few years, has made the study of the brain an exciting field.
The possible implications of this discovery are profound. Application of findings about this molecule can have an impact on the traumatized brain as well as the addicted brain.
Ultimately, the knowledge being discovered may be applied for improving memory and learning. Right now, the research is being done only with mice and rats. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
When studying memory molecules, scientists have zeroed in on the neurons in the hippocampus area of the brain. In an experiment, rats placed on a rotating platform learn to avoid a small stationary area that, upon contact, gives them an electric shock.
The next day, after an injection with either a salt solution or the “forgetting molecule” (a molecule that inhibits the protein that is involved with long-term memory), the salt brain remembers to avoid the “shock spot,” but the rat injected with the forgetting molecule forgets about the stationary area and gets shocked again.
For the scientists studying the biology of memory, the promise of new kinds of drugs to impact Alzheimer’s disease is truly exciting. By the year 2050, more than 100 million people are likely to be suffering from age-related memory decline, including Alzheimer’s.
As headway is made in determining the molecular basis for learning and memory, we may extrapolate that someday we might be able to help the elderly and others retain information better through medications and therapies that target specific molecular pathways.
Yet this kind of research raises scientific and ethical questions galore. The New York Times, in reporting about this research, observed: “Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other personally important memories that were somehow related? Would a treatment that ‘cleared’ the learned habits of addiction only tempt people to experiment more widely?”
In addition, there is not likely to be just one molecule that opens the secret of memory. Thomas J. Carew, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, and president of the Society for Neuroscience, was quoted in the New York Times article as saying: “There is not going to be one, single memory molecule; the system is just not that simple. There are going to be many molecules involved, in different kinds of memories, all along the process of learning, storage and retrieval.”
He and other scientists are just now poised to develop an understanding of the chemical makeup of human nature.
As we develop this understanding, our comprehension of the very nature of human endeavors will change. Writing poetry or novels or producing any kind of creative product — or even engaging in politics may be found to have a chemical basis in our brain.
Yet, as the New York Times observes: “…even as scientists sent men to the moon and spacecraft to Saturn and submarines to the ocean floor, the instrument responsible for such feats, the human mind, remain[s] almost entirely dark, a vast and mostly uncharted universe as mysterious as the New World was to explorers of the past.”
— Capitol News Service