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A Cure for Alzheimer's? Researchers Reverse Memory Loss in Snails

Update Date: Apr 18, 2013 12:59 PM EDT

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease or dementia - simply ways to minimize risk for the development of the disease or to maximize comfort for people who already have it. However, a recent study indicates that hope may be on the horizon. The study, performed by researchers at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, was able to reverse memory loss in sea snails, pointing to a way to do the same in humans.

The study was conducted using a sea snail called the Aplysia californica. The animal has a simple nervous system, but has cells with properties that resemble that of more complex animals like humans. Co-lead author of the study Yili Zhang, a research scientist at the university's medical school, developed a mathematical model that is able to figure out when brain cells are most able to learn.

In order to mimic Alzheimer's disease in the snails, the researchers blocked the activity of a memory protein that affects the sensory cells. As a result, the connections between the neurons were weaken which, in turn, impaired the snails' long-term memory. "Memory is due to a change in the strength of the connections among neurons," study senior author John Byrne, the director of the W.M. Keck Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the U.T. Health Medical School, said in a statement. "In many diseases associated with memory deficits, the change is blocked."

Then, in order to replicate training sessions, the researchers gave the sensory cells a chemical. That chemical was administered according to the time interval that Zhang had devised. After five training sessions, the snails' long-term memory had returned to near normal ability.

"This methodology may apply to humans if we can identify the same biochemical processes in humans. Our results suggest a new strategy for treatments of cognitive impairment. Mathematical models might help design therapies that optimize the combination of training protocols with traditional drug treatments," Byrne stated. "Combining these two could enhance the effectiveness of the latter while compensating at least in part for any limitations or undesirable side effects of drugs. These two approaches are likely to be more effective together than separately and may have broad generalities in treating individuals with learning and memory deficits."

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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