A man who is called the "fly guy", because he keeps over 300,000 fruit flies in a basement laboratory for research on mental abilities, has shown that genetically disrupting a specific gene called FMR1 in the insect's brain can wipe out its long-term memory.
Dr. Francois Bolduc's breakthrough study is significant for humans too, as FMR1 may malfunction in people with intellectual disabilities like Fragile X syndrome, and there are currently no clinically available treatments.
"We know that 87 per cent of the genes found in human mental retardation have homologs in fruit flies, so we're confident that we're on to something here," Nature Neuroscience quoted Bolduc, who is a new recruit to the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, as saying.
Bolduc began his study by exposing fruit flies to two smells in succession that were different, but "equally repulsive", to the insects. One of the smells was paired to a foot shock, and the other was benign.
The researcher revealed that the objective behind doing that was to make the flies learn to avoid the odour that led to a shock, even in the absence of a future shock.
He said that that memory would last for about a week, one-fifth of a lifetime to an average fruit fly.
In his long-term memory experiment, Bolduc found just 10 per cent of the fruit flies without the FMR1 gene avoided the smell that led to a shock, while 50 per cent of the normal flies knew enough to steer clear of it.
"The evidence clearly showed that the flies without the FMR1 gene really weren't operating at the same capacity as the control group," said Bolduc.
After four years of research, Bolduc also reported that he had identified the pathways that interfered with the function of the protein, and determined where in the flies' brains the protein functioned.
He even revealed that he had successfully enhanced memory performance in Fragile X flies by pharmaceutically decreasing protein synthesis.
He fed Fragile X flies drugs that reduced the production of protein in the brain, and they began to avoid the smell associated with a shock almost as much as the normal flies.
Bolduc has revealed that his next step would be to translate the findings into the creation of drugs to treat the condition in human patients.
"Right now there is no medical treatment-absolutely nothing that we can use routinely in the clinic-so we have a long way to go. We're probably about 10 years away, but I think we're on the right track," he said.
He believes that the new knowledge of the FMR1 gene may also apply to a number of other syndromes that are characterised by a reduction in cognitive function.
"This type of brain research is vital in the future. The FMR1 gene is complicated, and a lot of things can go wrong with it. We've answered a few basic questions, but there is still a lot to be discovered," he said.