New Information About Synapses May Lead To New Drugs To Aid Memory
Prior to now, it was known that information must be processed and strengthened at the cellular level via protein-covered synapses (electrical communication) among neurons. That action forms the brain's circuitry which helps information become memories. It was not known, however, exactly how the necessary proteins were made and regulated by the protein's RNA to create those synapses.
The perplexing issue was why the protein that surrounds electrical synapses degrades and yet almost simultaneously makes new proteins. The major discovery of this protein-making process was made by scientists at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB).
The researchers achieved their quest by studying live neurons removed from rats. Under a high-resolution microscope, they were able to see some of the specific proteins at work, like CaM Kinase (a protein critical to learning and memory) and Lypla (an enzyme that is encoded by the LYPLA1 gene)
What they discovered is that the protein that wraps itself around the synapse must degrade in order for its RNA to be freed. Once freed, the RNA can synthesize new proteins. "The degradation permits the synthesis to occur," said senior author Kenneth S. Kosik, co-director at UCSB's Neuroscience Research Institute. "That's the elegant scientific finding that comes out of this."
"When we learn new things, when we store memories, there are a number of things that have to happen," Kosik said.
"One of the most important processes is that the synapses -- which cement those memories into place -- have to be strengthened," said Kosik, who is also a leading researcher in Alzheimer's disease. "In strengthening a synapse you build a connection, and certain synapses are encoding a memory. Those synapses have to be strengthened so that memory is in place and stays there. Strengthening synapses is a very important part of learning. What we have found appears to be one part of how that happens."