As researchers uncover the mechanisms by which memories are formed and the structures within which they are stored, the day on which memory can be artificially enhanced grows nearer. Just as important as increasing the ability to remember in healthy, young people, however, is the ability to halt and reverse the decline of memory in the old and the frail. Some earlier posts from this year's archive illustrate the sort of investigations and theorizing presently taking place:
- Failing Memory and the Failing Immune System: Reversible?
- Stem Cell Transplants Can Restore Lost Memory
For my money, some of the most interesting results turning up these days involve the identification of single genes - and the proteins produced from their blueprint - that are crucial to the formation of memory. The expression of these genes might plausibly be adjusted to enhance memory, but the first item of business is to find them. As is usual in this sort of research, the importance of these proteins is confirmed by removing them and observing the results:
The ability to convert new sensory impressions into lasting memories in the brain is the basis for all learning. Much is known about the first steps of this process, those that lead to memories lasting a few hours, whereby altered signalling between neurons causes a series of chemical changes in the connections between nerve fibers, called synapses. However, less is understood about how the chemical changes in the synapses are converted into lasting memories stored in the cerebral cortex. A research team at Karolinska Institutet has now discovered that signalling via a receptor molecule called nogo receptor 1 (NgR1) in the nerve membrane plays a key part in this process.
Medicines designed to target the NgR1 receptor system would be able to improve the brain's ability to form long-term memories.
Complete understanding of the formation of memories - still many years away - will be an enormous step forward, the foundation of entire industries we have yet to imagine. It will open the door to engineering away the loss of capacity in the processes of human memory that occur with age. But even incremental advances along the way have the potential to bring great benefits to humanity.