Memory Problems: Could a Cure be Right Around the Corner?

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Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to affect 35 million people world-wide and the financial and emotional costs are enormous. Interesting new research in the fields of genetics and neuroscience brings some hope that treatments may be found for cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of memory-related dysfunction.

Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine are reporting some startling new findings from research in the fields of genetics and neuroscience that could possibly lead to cures for all sorts of cognitive dysfunctions. And while no one is yet claiming that the findings will eventually result in a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there is cautious hope for optimism that effective treatments for many memory-related illnesses might be just around the corner.

An international team of researchers from several universities and medical centers, led by Dr. Mauro Costa-Mattioli and his colleagues at Baylor, has been closely studying an RNA-activated protein, the PKR molecule. Their experiments have demonstrated that mice whose genetic makeup causes them to lack this molecule seem to have a sort of “super memory.” (The work was reported in the December 2011 Cell; see the full Baylor news release.) This enables them to learn certain kinds of tasks in only one trial, whereas mice that possess the protein require several trials to learn these tasks. Because altered PKR activity is seen in a wide variety of cognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, limiting its production in some way might prove to be the key to restoring or even improving memory function.

The exact role that PKR plays in memory functioning is still unclear. One unexpected and intriguing finding has been that when PKR production is inhibited there is significantly increased communication between nerve cells. This is facilitated by another molecule, gamma interferon (which is also highly involved in conferring immunity to certain viral infections). This increased communication is thought to be essential to memory and overall cognitive functioning.

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A related interesting finding is that using another small molecule that mimics PKR, and therefore blocks PKR’s production, had a similar effect. It led to the same increased inter-neuron communication and memory-enhancing effects found in the mice whose genetics prevented PKR fabrication.

So, Dr. Costa-Mattioli’s findings pave the way for a new direction in research to find a cure for cognitive disorders. The race will probably now be on to find agents that can inhibit the creation of PKR without causing undesirable effects, and to test the impact of PKR-inhibition on memory and other cognitive processes in human subjects. The goal of such research would not be to provide individuals with normal functioning brains with “super-memory,” but rather to improve memory function in individuals suffering from some type of memory impairment. But even if findings similar to this most recent study emerge, a true cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders is still probably several years away.

The importance of finding drugs that might block the over-production or alteration of PKR, and examining the results of doing so in humans could not be greater. Estimates are that nearly 6 million Americans and 35 million people world-wide are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease; there are over 70 million Americans alone who suffer from some sort of cognitive impairment. As the percentage of the world’s population comprised of those over the age of 60 steadily increases, and as the cost to the health care system and economy of memory-related illnesses rises, the need for effective treatments becomes ever more important. Hopefully, the results of this most recent research will help point us in the right direction toward a cure.

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