University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) academics, working alongside research colleagues at the University of Bristol and across the world, have discovered a novel way to manipulate the brain in order to strengthen the way we make memories. The work has revealed a potential new treatment target for brain diseases like dementia and epilepsy among others.
The global study, which is the largest and most in-depth of its kind, has uncovered a unique way to strengthen the connections in the hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotions – in its natural environment. The findings have also been published in the world-renowned scientific journal Nature Neuroscience.
Nerve cells in the brain communicate and transmit information across points of contact called synapses. By stimulating the synapses in the hippocampus, specifically specialised proteins known as kainate receptors in these synapses, the researchers were able to increase the number of signal receptors, called AMPA receptors, which are responsible for the storage of new information among other processes.
The breakthrough discovery of this new mechanism, which underlies the ability of our brains to learn and memorise new things, has wide-spread implications in many aspects of neuroscience and our understanding of how the brain works.
The findings offer new avenues of research including potential new targets for memory-related diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and may also help us to better understand what happens in the brains of people suffering from epilepsy.
In addition to the team at UCLan and the University of Bristol, work was conducted with academics from India, France and the Czech Republic.
Dr Milos Petrovic, co-author of the study and Reader in Neuroscience at UCLan said: “Untangling the interactions between the signal receptors in the brain not only tells us more about the inner workings of a healthy brain, but also provides a practical insight into what happens when we form new memories. If we can preserve these signals it may help protect against brain diseases.
“This is certainly an extremely exciting discovery and something that could potentially impact the global population. We have discovered potential new drug targets that could help to cure the devastating consequences of dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Collaborating with researchers across the world in order to identify new ways to fight disease like this is what world-class scientific research is all about, and we look forward to continuing our work in this area.”
Jeremy Henley, Professor of Molecular Neuroscience in the University of Bristol’s School of Biochemistry, said: “These discoveries represent a significant advance and will have far reaching implications for the understanding of memory, cognition, developmental plasticity and neuronal network formation and stabilisation. In summary, we believe that this is a ground-breaking study that opens new lines of inquiry which will increase understanding of the molecular details of synaptic function in health and disease.”
Inma Gonzalez, Lecturer in Neuroscience at UCLan, added: “The potential applications and the reach of this discovery are huge and we have only just started to explore the implications of this new memory-formation pathway. Our findings will open new research lines that will certainly contribute to our understanding of why we learn in different ways and, importantly, why our learning skills are reduced with age or disease.”
The study was funded by the European Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.