Scientists at McGill University in Montreal in Canada have found that by manipulating a gene in mice, it would be possible to alter the speed with which the mice learned to perform different tasks. That only means it could be possible to develop drugs to improve memory.
The finding paves the way for unprecedented treatments for people suffering from memory loss and dementia, but similar drugs might also improve the memory performance of healthy people.
The researchers studied an unusual gene that normally produces a protein that stops memories from forming. And this gene was tweaked to enhance memory.
In the experiments, mice were trained to remember the location of a platform slightly submerged in the water. After several days of training, the mice carrying the memory-boosting version of the gene were able to find the platform much quicker than normal mice.
The mice were later tested for their response to fear, by checking how well they associated a sound played at the same time as a mild shock, which they had been given 24 hours beforehand.
Again, the mice with the memory-enhancing gene reacted more quickly to the sound.
The scientists now hope to follow up their discovery by finding a drug that improves memory by interfering with the memory-blocking protein.
"If such a pill could be generated, it might provide a new method for treating people with memory-related disease such as Alzheimer's," said Dr Costa-Mattioli, whose study appears in the journal Cell.
"While a drug that worked in this way wouldn't cure the disease itself, it might rescue the symptoms of memory loss."
Memories are formed when brain cells are activated enough times to strengthen the connections between neighboring neurons. Mild training regimes cause only temporary strengthening of neural connections, leading to short-term memories lasting for minutes to hours.
But intense, repeated training activates mechanisms in the brain, which stabilize nerve connections. Thus long-term memories lasting days, weeks or years are formed.