Scientists Say Alzheimer's Memories Not Gone Forever
It's rare that we get any truly new information about Alzheimer's. Nearly every Shocking Headline merely sets us up for disappointment and leads to little more than a rehash of what we already know. Today, however, I want to tell you about something that really could end up being a game-changer. It's not a cure. It's not a treatment. It's not even something that — given the current state of our scientific capabilities — is likely to lead directly to a treatment any time in the very near future.
It's knowledge that should profoundly change how we view Alzheimer's. In fact it may change the way we think about memory as a whole. It gives us one more piece of the puzzle that is Alzheimer's, and if you've ever done a jigsaw puzzle you know that once you put the edges together, the rest of the picture starts to fall into place. Scientists at MIT have just shown that we've been looking at one of those puzzle pieces backward. And if we turn it around, the rest of the picture might come into focus.
To cut to the chase: the MIT scientists found that in Alzheimer's brains — at least in mice brains, anyway — lost memories aren't actually erased, they're just inaccessible. And with the right stimulus, we can bring them back.
One small step for mice, one giant leap for Alzheimer's researchers?
Before I go any farther, I have to say this: the MIT experiment isn't something we can replicate in humans. It involves mucking around with the mouse's DNA, laser lights, and holes in skulls. But now that we know the memories are still there, we might find a way to do the same thing in humans by using different tools.
Here's what the researchers did.
They used different groups of mice. The control group was normal and healthy. The test mice were bred to have Alzheimer's. The Alzheimer's mice also had some of their brain cells — in the hippocampus, specifically — genetically modified to be sensitive to a certain wavelength of light. They then put the mice in a box, where they gave them an electric shock to the feet in order to create a frightening memory.
They removed the mice from the box but put them back an hour later. The healthy mice, as you might expect, were terrified. They remembered the shock and cowered in fear. The Alzheimer's mice, however, weren't afraid. Their condition made them forget the shock, as you would expect.
Now comes the interesting part. The researchers then used a laser light to stimulate the light-sensitive hippocampus cells in the Alzheimer's mice. When the cells were activated by the light, the "lost" memory returned and the Alzheimer's mice crouched and froze just like the healthy mice.
This turns thirty-some years' worth of conventional wisdom on its head. Since the 80's, we've believed that memories lost to Alzheimer's are gone forever. Erased. Irretrievable. This one small experiment shows that's simply not the case. The memories are still there, stored somehow in the cells. They're just cut off where we can't access them.
I think of it like this: on my computer, I have hundreds and hundreds of files. On any given day, I can turn on my computer and with the click of my mouse, call up whatever file I want. If we have a storm and the power goes out, I can't access any of those files. But — they're still there in my computer, right where I put them. They didn't disappear. And if I can get the power back on, I can still open them just like I did before the power went out. Alzheimer's "lost" memories appear to be the same kind of scenario.
And this study even gives us a clue why it happens.
Crippled neurons may lead to "locked-in" memories
You can't read anything about Alzheimer's without hearing about beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles. One of the theories of Alzheimer's is that the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques disrupts communications between neurons, causing the classic memory loss and starting a chain reaction. The mice in the study, however, hadn't started to develop the plaques and abnormal tau proteins.
This is doubly intriguing because researchers noticed that the memory neurons in the Alzheimer's mice were missing a critical piece of their anatomy. They lacked something called dendritic spines, which are integral to allowing neurons to communicate with each other. So in effect, they were "locked in" — isolated and unable to talk to their neighbors. When they were stimulated with the light, however, they actually grew new dendritic spines.
This is big. This may be the biggest breakthrough in Alzheimer's research we've seen in years. It was only a small study, and we really can't use the technique on people. But it suggests some real possibilities for further study that might apply to humans — like electrical stimulation of the hippocampus. If Big Pharma doesn't squash it in order to peddle useless Alzheimer's pills, this might be the turning point that leads us toward a real treatment.
Any treatment is a ways off still, though. In the meantime, the best treatment is still prevention — through eating right for your brain, getting enough sleep, exercise, and giving your brain a good workout every day. But it does give us hope. This small experiment might be the pinprick of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
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