Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Single cell 'can store memories'

Dr Don Cooper
Dr Cooper has examined individual nerve cells in the brain

Just one brain cell is capable of holding fleeting memories vital for our everyday life, according to US scientists.

A study of mouse brain cells revealed how they could keep information stored for as long as a minute.

A UK specialist said that understanding these short-term memories might help unlock the secrets of Alzheimer's Disease.

The finding was reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

If we can identify and manipulate the molecular components of memory, we can develop drugs... to hopefully allow a person to complete tasks without being distracted
Dr Don Cooper
UT Southwestern

The difference between the brain's long-term and short-term memory has been likened to the RAM of a computer and the hard-drive.

To perform normal functions, we need the ability to store, quickly and reliably, large amounts of data, but only a small amount of this needs to be retained in the longer term.

Scientists have spent decades working out which parts of the brain are responsible for these functions, and how cells manage this feat.

Original theories suggested the memories were retained by multiple cells forming "circuits" around which electrical impulses were fired for the necessary period.

More recent ideas have centred around the concept that even an individual cell could somehow hold on to information.

Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern looked at brain cells taken from mice using tiny electrodes to measure their function.

They found that a particular component of the cells in question, a chemical receptor, which, when switched on, tells the cell to start an internal signal system that holds the "memory" in place.

Drug boost

The next step, they say, is to find out more about this internal system so that it could be targeted by drugs with the aim of improving memory.

Dr Don Cooper, the lead researcher, said: "If we can identify and manipulate the molecular components of memory, we can develop drugs that boost the ability to maintain this memory trace to hopefully allow a person to complete tasks without being distracted."

He said that this could potentially help people addicted to drugs, by improving the ability of their brain to ignore impulses.

Professor Ian Forsythe, from the MRC Neurotoxicology Unit at the University of Leicester, said that the information shed on the brain's ability to retain short-term information was important in understanding the laying down of longer-term memories - and perhaps to understand how to help people for whom that was a problem.

He said: "Probably the most interesting thing will be to get to grips with the memory problems involved in Alzheimer's Disease.

"If you've got no short term memory, you've got no chance of longer-term memories."

Alison Cranage, from the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said, "By understanding memory formation, scientists may be able to discover ways to enhance it.

"Memory loss can be an early sign of dementia, and we desperately need to fund more research in order to find a cure for this devastating disease."

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