Nothing but a bad memory


Ridding yourself of hurtful or embarrassing memories may seem ideal. Equally, finding a way of legally enhancing your memory skills would be desirable when having to recall information in those end of year exams.

Recent research using rat test subjects have identified a protein that appears to have an integral role in the memory process. Protein kinase Mzeta (PKMzeta) is an enzyme produced by neurons used for storing memory. Unlike other proteins involved in the re-shaping of neurons to make a memory permanent rather than transient, PKMzeta remains active after the memory is formed, meaning that specific memories could possibly be either removed or enhanced (once thought impossible once the neuron reshaping had already taken place).

Using aversion therapy, neurobiologists from The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel trained rats to avoid water sweetened with saccharin in preference of pure water, by injecting them with a drug that made them ill after its consumption. Later the rats were given a choice of pure or sweetened water and avoided the latter, associating it with illness. Using a viral vector, the scientists delivered the gene which creates PKMzeta into some of the rats a week after the aversion therapy was performed. When tested again, the rats with higher levels of the enzyme, showed a much greater aversion to the sweetened water than those who had not received the PKMzeta gene. This led the scientists to conclude to that PKMzeta had an enhancing role on the memory of the rats, allowing them to remember more clearly the negative impact of the saccharin water.

However this research has only been undertaken on rats. The effects of any treatment on humans has not been analysed, though the aversion process is similar in people (explaining why after a particular drink or food makes us ill, we avoid it in future). Unfortunately there are many drugs with positive effects on rats but no benefits or even a negative impact when tested on human volunteers.

The results on PKMzeta are promising, and while making certain memories painfully vivid to those in perfect health would not be beneficial, for sufferers of debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, who want to retain the memories most important to them, PKMzeta may seem like a thin ray of hope.

Dominic Reed

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