Learning and memory are regulated by a region of the brain known as the hippocampus. New research from City of Hope has found that stimulating a specific gene could prompt growth - in adults - of new neurons in this critical region, leading to faster learning and better memories.
Understanding the link between this gene and the growth of new neurons - or neurogenesis - is an important step in developing therapies to address impaired learning and memory associated with neurodegenerative diseases and aging. The new research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
The study, which used an animal model, found that over-expressing the gene - a nuclear receptor called TLX - resulted in smart, faster learners that retained information better and longer.
"Memory loss is a major health problem, both in diseases like Alzheimer's, but also just associated with aging," said Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a neurosciences professor at City of Hope. "In our study, we manipulated the expression of this receptor by introducing an additional copy of the gene - which obviously we cannot do outside the laboratory setting. The next step is to find the drug that can target this same gene."
The discovery creates a new potential strategy for improving cognitive performance in elderly patients and those who have a neurological disease or brain injury.
The bulk of the brain's development happens before birth, and there are periods - largely in childhood and young adulthood - when the brain experiences bursts of new growth. In the past couple of decades, however, scientists have found evidence of neurogenesis in later adulthood - occurring mostly in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and memory.
The new study is the first to firmly link the TLX gene to a potential for enhancing learning and memory.
Researchers found that over-expression of the gene was actually associated with a physically larger brain, as well as the ability to learn a task quickly. Furthermore, over-expression of the gene was linked with the ability to remember, over a longer period of time, what had been learned.