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Researchers make rats ‘senile’

A group of Brooklyn neuroscientists have discovered a way to make rats quite literally fuggedaboutit.

At SUNY Downstate Medical Center, the researchers have pinpointed an enzyme molecule that is believed to have a role in how the brain store’s memories — an ageāˆ’old question that scientists and philosophers have long contemplated.

The Downstate researchers found a chemical that blocks the functioning of the molecule, called protein kinase M zeta, (PKM). When rats are injected with the chemical, called zeta inhibitory peptide (ZIP), the animals will forget a previously learned behavior. In this case, the rats forget that they learned not to walk on a rotating plate that administers a mild shock. ZIP produced no lasting damage to the rat’s brain, and the animals could be retrained.

The research could one day have applications in humans battling addiction, enabling their brain to forget the gnawing craving, or could help victims of violence get past a traumatic experience — by wiping it from their brain entirely.

Dr. AndrÉ A. Fenton, an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Downstate, knows that the research which he performs along with Dr. Todd Sacktor hearkens to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where Jim Carrey plays a man trying to erase the memory of a sweet relationship gone sour.

But Fenton said applying the research to human subjects — aside from any ethical considerations — is a long way off. “What we are interested in is understanding how the brain works. We have a long way to go before we understand how to apply that knowledge,” he said.

“Knowledge, if managed appropriately, is ultimately for the benefit of people,” he continued.

Just as today doctors recommend specific actions to better care for one’s heart, Fenton’s hope is that scientists will develop the idea of “memory hygiene” that will improve people’s well being.

“This kind of knowledge has the ability to transform societies — to make them just, and more human,” he said.

At the end of 2008, the Downstate researchers discovered that the chemical will inhibit specific items of information, and not general or global information. In humans, for example, that would mean that you might remember how to ride a bicycle, but you wouldn’t remember who taught you or how old you were when you learned.

Today, the researchers continue to study the molecule, coaxing it to show them how memory “looks” in the brain, an endeavor just as vexing to the Greek philosopher Plato as it is to them. “When we start to understand better the biology of memory, then we can start imagining how we can start to manipulate the biology of memory for good,” Fenton said.

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