JUPITER, FL - December 11, 2014 - Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have been awarded $2.3 million from the Department of Health and Human Services of the National Institutes of Health to better understand how memories are stored in the hopes of eventually being able to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by erasing traumatic memories without altering other, more benign ones.
Courtney Miller, a TSRI associate professor, is the principal investigator for the new five-year study.
"We hope this new study will make a significant contribution to the goal of developing new and more effective treatments for mental illness," Miller said.
While literally thousands of mechanisms for how a memory initially forms have been identified, only a few mechanisms are known for how the brain stores these memories for weeks to years. To produce a memory, a lot has to be done, including the alteration of the structure of nerve cells via changes in the dendritic spines--small bulb-like structures that receive electrochemical signals from other neurons. Normally, these structural changes occur via actin, the protein that makes up the infrastructure of all cells.
Miller is investigating the possibility that microRNAs, naturally occurring small RNAs that act to suppress the production of proteins, may be capable of coordinating the complexity required for the brain to maintain this actin-based structural integrity of a long-lasting memory.
"Our study will investigate the microRNA profile of a PTSD-like memory, with the idea that the persistence of a traumatic memory is maintained by the recruitment of a unique set of microRNAs within the amygdala--the brain's emotional memory center and a critical participant in PTSD," Miller said.
An understanding of how the brain actually stores these toxic memories should result in the development of new targets that can then be exploited to selectively target harmful memories, as in the case of PTSD, or to preserve fading memory, such as with age-related cognitive decline.
In 2013, Miller and her colleagues were able to erase dangerous memories associated with drugs of abuse in mice and rats, without affecting other more benign memories. That surprising discovery, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, pointed to a clear and workable method to disrupt unwanted memories while leaving others intact.
The number of the new grant is 1R01MH105400.
About The Scripps Research Institute
The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) is one of the world's largest independent, not-for-profit organizations focusing on research in the biomedical sciences. TSRI is internationally recognized for its contributions to science and health, including its role in laying the foundation for new treatments for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, and other diseases. An institution that evolved from the Scripps Metabolic Clinic founded by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924, the institute now employs about 3,000 people on its campuses in La Jolla, CA, and Jupiter, FL, where its renowned scientists--including two Nobel laureates--work toward their next discoveries. The institute's graduate program, which awards PhD degrees in biology and chemistry, ranks among the top ten of its kind in the nation. For more information, see http://www.