Drugs 'may help improve memory and learning'

Scientists have recently shown that some drugs can actually improve cognitive function, which may have implications for our understanding of disorders like Alzheimer's disease.

The study, led by Jose A. Esteban, Shira Knafo and Cesar Venero, is the result of collaboration between researchers from The Centro de Biologia Molecular Severo Ochoa and UNED (Spain), the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL, Switzerland) and the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology (Faculty of Health Sciences, Denmark).

The human brain contains trillions of neuronal connections, called synapses, whose pattern of activity controls all our cognitive functions. These synaptic connections are dynamic and constantly changing in their strength and properties.

This process, known as synaptic plasticity, has been proposed as the cellular basis for learning and memory. Indeed, alterations in synaptic plasticity mechanisms are thought to be responsible for multiple cognitive deficits, such as autism, Alzheimer's disease and several forms of mental retardation.

The study by Knafo et al. provides new information on the molecular mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, and how this process may be manipulated to improve cognitive performance.

They find that synapses can be made more plastic by using a small protein fragment (peptide) derived from a neuronal protein involved in cell-to-cell communication. This peptide (called FGL) initiates a cascade of events inside the neuron that results in the facilitation of synaptic plasticity.

Specifically, the authors found that FGL triggers the insertion of new neurotransmitter receptors into synapses in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is known to be involved in multiple forms of learning and memory.

Importantly, when this peptide was administered to rats, their ability to learn and retain spatial information was enhanced.

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