Memory loss? Forget about it
By Andrew Webster
photo of Eric Kandel
Nobel laureate and world-leading expert on the workings of memory Eric Kandel is in an optimistic mood.
Within a matter of years, he predicts, the problem of memory loss, whether bothersome, age-related forgetfulness or the crippling effects of Alzheimer's disease, could be little more than . . . well, a memory.
Already, he says clinical trials have started for "a little red pill", which he hopes will prove as effective in people as it has in the laboratory. "There are metabolic disturbances in the brain with age-related memory loss and one can, in the mouse, reverse those changes," he said. "I think it's quite likely that therapies will become available for age-related memory loss (in humans) over the next five years."
Invited to Melbourne from the US to present a series of guest lectures at the Australian Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting, the 74-year-old pioneer of research into the molecular mechanisms of memory storage says memory problems afflict about 40 per cent of 70-year-olds.
"Memory is the glue that binds your whole life together, it's how you remember what you did yesterday and what you plan to do tomorrow," he said. "Without memory you would be a zombie. People in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease don't have any contact with the most precious people in their lives."
Professor Kandel's investigations at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Columbia University, in New York, show brain cells involved in memory are constantly and subtly interacting, with tiny physical and chemical changes accompanying every experience. "An event happens and it leaves a trace in your head. It involves neural circuitry spread over hundreds of cells, sometimes thousands in a kind of a pattern," he said.
And those patterns seem to be reinforced by repetition. "We know that once you have experienced something there are physical changes that occur in your brain. So the next time, a fleeting component of that (experience) comes to your attention it can bring back that whole neural circuitry."
The pills on trial aim to top-up levels of essential chemicals in the brain. "They really work as a replenishment of substances that decrease (over time) from their normal amounts," Professor Kandel said.
Professor Kandel will deliver the Howard Florey Institute's annual Kenneth Myer Lecture at the University of Melbourne's Copland Theatre at 6pm this Monday, February 2
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