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David Ewing Duncan

A View from David Ewing Duncan

New Memory Gene

Shutting down a memory-blocking gene in mice may lead to super-recall. But will this expand our intelligence or bury us in useless detail?

  • April 17, 2007

Imagine what would happen if we could ratchet up the volume and quality of our memories, and also our speed and ability to integrate bits of information stored in our noggins.

At McGill University, in Montreal, researchers have isolated a gene in mice that produces a protein that blocks the formulation of memories. Mice with a defective version of this gene were able to remember tasks better than those with the normal variation, according to an article in the Guardian.

“ ‘If a person were reading a page of a textbook, it might take several times to memorize it,’ said Mauro Costa-Mattioli, a researcher on the team. ‘A human equivalent of these mice would get the information right away.’”

When the team amplified the expression of this gene, memory was further impaired, proving that this stretch of DNA does indeed impact memory. The work is published in Cell.

The next step for the team is to come up with a compound to block the action of the memory-killing protein–which might be a boon for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related ailments. The drug won’t cure these diseases, but it might halt the loss of memories.

According to Carved in Sand, a new book on memory by my friend Cathryn Jakobson Ramin and a fascinating read, there are roughly 40 cognition-enhancing drugs in human clinical trials. They are designed to augment wakefulness, attention, memory, decision making, and planning. The drugs in this group that make it to FDA approval will be added to an arsenal that already includes Adderall, Provigil, and other drugs approved for various illnesses of the mind but used routinely by the healthy.

Millions of people use these drugs to enhance their focus and performance on tests at school, to prepare the big presentation for the boss, and many other reasons. (Safety tip: some of these drugs have side effects, including addiction.) Most do not work by impacting memory itself, but by increasing focus and stamina so that memories can be more quickly retrieved and organized.

“The idea of cognitive enhancement is a lifestyle choice–I think it’s going to change society,” says Martha Farah in Cathryn’s book. Farah directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

The arrival of these drugs brings up a host of issues that need to be thought about, ranging from who gets the drugs to what might be lost if we are all juiced up on mind meds all the time. For instance, Cathryn reports that her own use of Adderall and Provigil for memory impairment gives her a boost in terms of focus and energy, but at times it robs her of the impulsiveness and creativity required of a writer–a situation that led her to stop taking Adderall and to limit her use of the less addictive Provigil to challenging days, when she needs to keep up her energy.

The new generation of drugs will be far more targeted and less addictive–and therefore will be snatched up by those who can afford them, while those who can’t may be left out.

And who knows what a greatly expanded network of memories will reveal–a whole new conception of life and the universe, or way too many details, like the exact location of every sock I have ever lost and where I left my keys that day I lost them during the summer of 1993?

Keep up with the latest in genetics at EmTech MIT.
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