A new study has shown that switching off a single gene in mice unlocks a part of their brain that is otherwise inactive, boosting learning and memory. Considering the fact that humans have a similar gene, this sparks hope for many especially those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The gene in question is the RGS14 gene that has been studied for a decade since its discovery ten years ago. A study last year suggested increased RGS14 levels could greatly aid recall and memory. Pharmacologist John Hepler and his colleagues at Emory University have named it “Homer Simpson Gene”. A protein created by the gene is thought to be crucial to processing various signals needed to create memories. It is mostly found in a part of the hippocampus known as CA2. The hippocampus helps consolidate learning and retain new memories, but the specific functions of the CA2 region in particular are unknown.
Hepler and his team disabled the RGS14 in a population of mice. They then studied how the CA2 region responded to electrical simulation in these particular mice. They found that the CA2 area was suddenly capable of long-term potentiation, a process by which neural connections are strengthened and thus learning and memory creation are increased. In normal cases, the CA2 region does not undergo this process, which means it is of no use in memory creation but does make it more resistant to strokes and seizures. However in the gene-altered mice, the CA2 region was the place for long-term potentiation. Mice with the disabled RGS14 gene were able to remember objects they had explored and learn to navigate mazes better than regular mice, suggesting that RGS14's presence limits some forms of learning and memory. This suggests switching off RGS14 could have great benefits to cognition.
Hepler says, “A big question this research raises is why would we, or mice, have a gene that makes us less smart – a Homer Simpson gene? I believe that we are not really seeing the full picture. RGS14 may be a key control gene in a part of the brain that, when missing or disabled, knocks brain signals important for learning and memory out of balance.” He explains, “This suggests that these mice may not forget things as easily as other mice, or perhaps they have altered social behavior or sensitivity to seizures.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It remains to be seen whether this can be applied to humans.