The Memory Master
A gene that may underlie the molecular mechanisms of memory has been identified, says a new study.
The gene’s called neuronal PAS domain protein 4 (Npas4 to its friends). When a brain has a new experience, Npas4 leaps into action, activating a whole series of other genes that modify the strength of synapses – the connections that allow neurons to pass electrochemical signals around.
You can think of synapses as being a bit like traffic lights: a very strong synapse is like a green light, allowing lots of traffic (i.e., signals) to pass down a particular neural path when the neuron fires. A weaker synapse is like a yellow light – some signals might slip through now and then, but most won’t make it. Some synapses can inhibit others, acting like red lights – stopping any signals from getting through. And if a particular synapse goes untraveled for long enough, the road starts to crumble away – until finally, there’s no synapse left.
There’s a saying in neuroscience: “Cells that fire together wire together.” (And vice versa.) In other words, synaptic plasticity – the ability of neurons to modify their connectivity patterns – is what allows neural networks to physically change as they take in new information. It’s what gives our brains the ability to learn.
In fact, millions of neurons are delicately tinkering with their connectivity patterns right now, inside your head, as you learn this stuff. Pretty cool, huh?
Anyway, synaptic plasticity’s not exactly breaking news – scientists have been studying it in animals like squid and sea slugs since the 1970s. Neurons in those animals are pretty easy to study with electrodes and a microscope, because a) the animals are anatomically simple compared to humans, and b) some of their neurons are so huge they can be seen with the naked eye.
Studying synapses in humans isn’t quite so simple, though. For one thing, most people wouldn’t like it if you cut open their brain and started poking around while they were alive and conscious – and besides, a lot of the really interesting stuff happens down at the molecular level.
That brings up an important point: though you normally hear about genes in connection with traits – say, a “gene for baldness” and so on – these complex molecular strands actually play all sorts of roles in the body, from building cells to adjusting chemical levels to telling other genes what to do.
That’s why MIT’s Yingxi Lin and her team set out to study the functions of certain genes found in the hippocampus – a brain structure central to memory formation – the journal Science reports. The researchers taught a group of mice to avoid a little room in which they received a mild electric shock, then used a precise chemical tracking technique to isolate which genes in the mouse hippocampus were activated right when the mice learned which room to avoid.
In particular, they focused on a hippocampal region with the sci-fi-sounding name of Cornu Ammonis 3 – or CA3 for short:
We found that the activity-dependent transcription factor Npas4 regulates a transcriptional program in CA3 that is required for contextual memory formation. Npas4 was specifically expressed in CA3 after contextual learning.
By “transcriptional program,” the paper’s authors mean a series of genetic “switches” – genes that Npas4 activates – which in turn make chemical adjustments that strengthen or weaken synaptic connections. In short, Npas4 appears to be part of the master “traffic conductor program” for many of the brain’s synapses.
Though they were pretty excited by this discovery (who wouldn’t be?) the researchers took a deep breath, calmed down, and double-checked their results, by testing memory formation in mice whose brains were unable to produce Npas4:
Global knockout or selective deletion of Npas4 in CA3 both resulted in impaired contextual memory, and restoration of Npas4 in CA3 was sufficient to reverse the deficit in global knockout mice.
In short, they make a pretty convincing argument that Npas4 is a necessary ingredient in a mouse’s ability – and probably our ability – to form certain types of new memories.
Exactly how that program relates to our experience of memory remains unclear, but it’s a promising starting point for fine-tuning future memory research. I don’t know about you, but I’d be thrilled to green-light such a project.