The discovery of a protein's role in the process of memory and learning could lead to the development of new treatments for people with Alzheimer's disease and learning disorders, according to a study in the Feb. 27 issue of Science.
A team of researchers at the University of Toronto, Mount Sinai Hospital and The Hospital for Sick Children have studied the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in spatial memory. "It's the part of the brain responsible for helping you find your way home after work," says Professor John Roder of the department of molecular and medical genetics at U of T and the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The brain contains billions of nerve cells that produce and send small electrical signals responsible for all mental activity. Each neuron connects to another neuron at specialized sites called synapses and it is at this location that information is transmitted from one neuron to another. Although it has been known for many years that learning and memory involves strengthening the synaptic connections, how this is accomplished has been unclear.
The investigators have now determined that these connections are strengthened by activating a protein known as Src. Once activated, this protein initiates a cascade of events in the neuron that strengthens the synaptic connections and subsequently enhances the transmission of impulses between nerve cells in the brain.
"If this sequence of events occurs in other areas of the nervous system it could provide clues about other disorders such as chronic pain and epilepsy," says Professor Michael Salter of the department of physiology at U of T and the brain and behavioural research program at The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute.
Roder and Salter worked on the study with lead investigator Dr. You Ming Lu, a second year PhD student at U of T and researcher at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital and Jonathon Davidow, a summer medical student from McGill University working in Salter's lab. Funding for the study was provided by the Medical Research Council of Canada.