It sounds like science fiction, but neuroscientists have identified a molecule in mice that, when suppressed, significantly boosts memory. It's meant as a radical treatment for Alzheimer's patients, but there's no reason the rest of us couldn't take it, too.
Baylor University researchers discovered that a molecule called PKR serves two crucial function in the brains of mice. In everyday situations, it's concerned with regulating how neurons interact in memory-related tasks. But when a virus invades, PRK activates a stress response that alerts the rest of the brain that something is very wrong. Alzheimer's sufferers also experience PKR-releasing stress in the course of their disease.
Lead researcher Mauro Costa-Mattioli and his team worked with mice that had had the PKR molecule genetically suppressed. In its absence, another immune molecule known as gamma interferon steps in, and that's when something remarkable happens. It turns out this understudy molecule is actually way better at its job than PKR, increasing communication between neurons and just generally making the memory centers of the brain more efficient.
The team realized that if they could find an inhibitor that could specifically block the PKR molecule, they could confer that same memory-boosting benefit without having to worry about genetic engineering. By injecting various potential inhibitors into the mice's stomachs, they were able to find the right molecule. Even better, since that inhibitor blocked PKR from the stomach, that should mean it's possible to create an ingestible drug that blocks PKR.
When the researchers tested the PKR-deficient mice in a series of memory tests, those mice were able to pick up on patterns and remember them on the first try, while the other mice needed days to figure out how to solve the puzzle. The PKR-deficient mice consistently showed significantly better memory and learning abilities than their counterparts.
Of course, there's a pretty crucial question here - is it safe to remove a key immune molecule like PKR? Well, so far, the PKR-deficient mice have shown no ill health, as other immune molecules appear more than capable to fill in for its various functions. While it's certainly possible that there's still a downside here, the researchers haven't found it yet.
All of this is in place to create a drug for human use, which Costa-Mattioli says is primarily meant as a way to help Alzheimer's patients fight memory loss, though he concedes that others might buy such a drug to boost their memories to superhuman levels. He doesn't seem like a particular fan of the idea - he compares it to someone who buys Viagra just for the hell of it - but that doesn't mean that the drug wouldn't actually work.
Right now, a drug for human use is still a few years out, although we're still talking about the near future here if this all pans out. The next step will be to make the inhibitor more potent than before, and then it's onto clinical trials. It may well turn out that this drug just won't work on humans, or perhaps it is only useful in helping people whose memories are already fading - which, it should be pointed out, would still be an excellent result. But if there was ever a time to be optimistic about an honest-to-goodness, memory-boosting super-drug...well, this is as good a time as any.