Scientists have figured out how brain encodes memories and this could help develop new drugs for brain disorders.
The University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) team is the first to uncover a central process in encoding memories, which occurs at the level of synapse, connecting neurons with one another.
“When we learn new things we store memories. There are a number of things that have to happen,” said senior study author Kenneth S. Kosik, a neuroscientist at the UCSB Neuroscience Research Institute.
“One of the most important processes is that the synapses - which cement those memories into place - have to be strengthened,” said Mr. Kosik.
Part of strengthening a synapse involves making new proteins. Those proteins build the synapse and make it stronger.
Just like with exercise, when new proteins must build up muscle mass, synapses must also make more protein when recording memories.
The production of new proteins can only occur when the RNA (genes) that will make the required proteins is turned on.
Until then, the RNA is “locked up” by a silencing molecule, which is a micro RNA. The RNA and micro RNA are part of a package that includes several other proteins.
“When something comes into your brain - a thought, some sort of stimulus, you see something interesting, you hear some music - synapses get activated,” said Mr. Kosik.
“What happens next is really interesting, but to follow the pathway our experiments moved to cultured neurons. When synapses got activated, one of the proteins wrapped around that silencing complex gets degraded.”
When the signal comes in, the wrapping protein degrades or gets fragmented. Then the RNA is suddenly free to synthesize a new protein, said an UCSB release.
“One reason why this is interesting is that scientists have been perplexed for some time as to why, when synapses are strengthened, you need to have proteins degrade and also make new proteins,” said Mr. Kosik.
The degradation permits the synthesis to occur. That's the elegant scientific finding that comes out of this," he added.
These finding were published in the Thursday issue of Neuron.