This is a remarkable week for two reasons. Firstly a group publishing in Nature Neuroscience have suggested that individual cells are capable of holding memories for short periods of time on the basis of their findings. If this proves correct, then it would represent a paradigm shift in the understanding of brain function and the formation of memories. The second piece of research which seems to have come from nowhere is the revival of an extinct species, the Pyrenean Ibex. While this is not immediately relevant to psychiatry, this field of research has the potential to have far reaching implications.
Research in Dementia and Related Areas
Alan Johnson, Health Secretary, is unveiling a national dementia strategy to Parliament this week. The consultation document is here (STT1). A slightly abstract piece of research is one at the cellular level, but i’ve included it here as it has important implications for memory. Thus in Nature Neuroscience, Cooper and colleagues have used a patch-clamp recording technique on layer V Pyramidal cells in the Prefrontal Cortex and found that the cell’s depolarisation on receiving input from another cell continues for up to a minute even when the other synapsing neuron is no longer firing. As cocaine has an influence on working memory and also eliminated the depolarisation, the authors conclude that this cell was retaining a memory. Needless to say, the suggestion that it is not the synapses but the cells themselves that are storing the memories is quite staggering and runs 180 degrees to prevailing theory. In my opinion there will almost certainly still be a role for the synapses themselves and associated processes such as Long Term Potentiation. However, should these findings be reliably replicated then this would represent a paradigm shift and add a new perspective to theoretical models of dementia including interventional strategies (STT4). A study in healthy elderly (average age 60 years) volunteers showed an improvement in verbal memory with calorific restriction together with a reduction in C-Reactive Protein and Insulin levels. The results will need further replication but fit with a body of evidence emerging in the area of calorie-restriction. However, such approaches have potential to compromise the immune system and the Department of Health has given advice about not reducing calories during the winter months when infections are more prevalent. Larger and longer term studies will be required before any recommendations can be safely made (STT4).
A recently extinct species, the Pyrenean Ibex has been cloned (using DNA from skin samples) after the eggs were introduced into a goat. Unfortunately the infant died soon after birth. This is an astonishing piece of news and will surely trigger an ethical debate while at the same time offering an option unthinkable to conservationalists even a decade ago.
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