November 26, 2002
Rat Learning Ability Enhanced With Protein Injection

It would be great if human learning could be enhanced so easily.

A new study by researchers in Italy and the United States has found 140 genes, located in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, that had significantly altered activity when rats navigate a water maze. By enhancing the protein product of one of those genes, the scientists significantly boosted the rodents' spatial learning ability.

By "enhancing" it sounds like all they did was to inject a protein called fibroblast growth factor 18:

In another experiment, Alkon's group showed that they could improve spatial learning in rats by injecting them with FGF-18.

Update: It sounds like they first used DNA microarray technology to identify the list of genes that were upregulated during learning as a clue as to which compounds made by the neurons might enhance learning. The Reuters Health write-up gives the clearest indication of what they did:

There were six major groups of memory-related genes, with the largest being genes involved in cell signaling. One of these signaling genes contains the blueprints for a substance called fibroblast growth factor (FGF)-18. Cavallaro's team found that injecting extra FGF-18 into the rats' brains improved their ability to learn.

They identified the genes activated during learning, categorized the genes by type of function, and then focused on genes that are involved in cell signalling. In other words they focused on genes that control other genes and that control other parts of the cell. This allowed them to narrow down their candidates for intervention to compounds that would have the best chance to have an impact on cell development under the conditions of learning.

Their ability to carry out this experiment was made possible by advances in DNA microarray technology (Affymetrix is best known for its DNA microarray assay technology) that allow the watching of the regulatory state of thousands of genes at once. In this case the researchers watched the state of 2500 genes in order to discover the 140 that were involved in learning. The development of better tools to monitor biological systems accelerates the rate at which the function of cells can be puzzled out.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 November 26 12:23 PM  Brain Enhancement

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