If there’s a red-flag word in any headline that should keep people from getting too excited, it’s the word “may.”
Still, this headline can still make a jaw or two drop, we learned this afternoon.
“The important point is, this is a proof of concept,” Nobel prize winner Susumu Tonegawa said in his paper published this week. “That is, even if a memory seems to be gone, it is still there. It’s a matter of how to retrieve it.”
Unsurprisingly, the research involves mice, and animal rights advocates probably won’t like how Tonegawa reached his conclusion as revealed in the Washington Post.
The research, described in the journal Nature, involved two groups of mice. One was a normal control and the other was genetically engineered to have Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. Both groups were given a mild electric shock to their feet. The first group appeared to remember the trauma of the incident by showing fear when placed back in the box where they had been given the shock. The Alzheimer’s mice, on the other hand, seemed to quickly forget what happened and did not have an upset reaction to the box.
Their reaction changed dramatically when the scientists stimulated tagged cells in their brains in the hippocampus — the part of the brain that encodes short-term memories — with a special blue light. When they were put back in the box following the procedure, their memories of the shock appeared to have returned, and they displayed the same fear as their healthy counterparts.
“This is a remarkable study providing the first proof that the earliest memory deficit in Alzheimer’s involves retrieval of consolidated information,” says Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research. “As a result, the implications for treatment of memory deficits Alzheimer’s disease based on strengthening synapses are extremely exciting.”
The researchers say it might be possible someday to develop a technology that restores the memories Alzheimer’s was thought to destroy.