Understanding that memory, learning and cognitive flexibility depend on a protein ‘off-switch’ in the brain could lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, new breakthrough research from the University of Warwick, UK, has found.
This new knowledge will help to better understand and tackle the neurological diseases which inhibit memory, which include Alzheimer’s disease.
It was found by Dr Mark Wall from Warwick’s School of Life Sciences and researchers from the University of Bradford, UK, and Georgia State University, USA, that the protein which increases in the brain during learning (Arc) needs to be switched off rapidly and removed shortly after the new information has been received, in order to remember and retain it.
What is the significance of the Arc protein?
The Arc protein’s significance in regulating the brain’s memory and learning process was already known, however, the vital nature of its ‘off-switch’ has remained hidden until now.
Cognitive flexibility begins to reduce when Alzheimer’s sets in, which causes:
- Altered behaviour;
- Confusion; and
- An inability to learn and retain new information, such as the location of a building or a person’s name.
Research suggests that the lack of cognitive flexibility and inability to remember new information could result from the Arc protein not being fully switched off.
By using the ‘off-switch’, clinical researchers could better understand what causes it to malfunction.
What the experts say
Wall commented: “To give an analogy to explain our findings: imagine you are staying at a hotel for a couple of weeks. After the first week, the manager changes your room but won’t tell you where your new room is located.
“To find your new room, you would have to test your key in each hotel room door until it opened your door. However, once found, the next time you returned to the hotel, you would be able to locate your room quickly using a series of spatial cues that could include which floor your room was on, how far your room was from the elevator, and whether it was located near a fire exit.”
Dr Sonia A.L. Corrêa, from the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Bradford, continued: “Now, imagine a situation where every time you returned to the hotel you had to test your key in every room door until you found your room.
“This inability to adjust your strategy to find the location of your new room is known as cognitive inflexibility and this what happens if the Arc protein is not switched off correctly. As we age, this altered behaviour occurs more frequently and, more importantly, this type of behaviour is found in some forms of neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s disease.”
Press release: University of Warwick