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Memory Mineral
Researchers find that magnesium is crucial to cognitive functions
By Lisa Scanlon

We’re all used to hearing about the importance of getting enough calcium, iron, and vitamins, but magnesium is completely off most people’s nutritional radar. That could soon change, thanks to research at the Picower Center for Learning and Memory that suggests that the mineral found in foods such as avocados and green, leafy vegetables plays an important part in learning and memory.

Scientists have long known that when the brain’s synapses lose their plasticity, or ability to change, the brain has a harder time learning and remembering. This deterioration happens naturally as people age. Less clear, however, has been exactly what causes these changes. But now, associate professor Guosong Liu and postdoctoral associate Inna Slutsky have developed a theory about what causes loss of plasticity in the brain.

First, the researchers surmised that plasticity is affected by random neural activity or “noise” within the brain. “The more random, unstructured stuff in your brain, the less the brain is capable of encoding new information,” Liu says. Liu and Slutsky set out to find molecules that could help the brain suppress this background noise. They found that magnesium did just that. In the researchers’ experiments, cultures of rat neurons that received high levels of magnesium were far more plastic than those that did not.

Liu hopes that within a year, clinical trials will begin to study the effects of magnesium on human brains. In the longer term, he imagines new drugs that might enhance or dampen a person’s memory; you might, for example, choose to take a pill to sharpen your memory before leaving for a long-­anticipated vacation. For now, Liu is confident that the research will put magnesium on the map.

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