News for Chapel Hill: Alzheimer’s Patients Memories May Be Recoverable

May 25, 2016

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease may not have lost their memories, but may have trouble retrieving them. A recent study has found the first evidence that Alzheimer’s disease does not destroy specific memories, but seems to make them inaccessible. Nobel prize winner, Susumu Tonegawa has been studying mice using a blue light to stimulate specific areas of the brain. Scientists could make the mice recall thoughts that were unavailable to them previously. The mice were genetically modified to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The mice were used in a simple experiment to release a mild electrical shock when placed in a box. Normal mice would freeze and anticipate the shock, but the Alzheimer’s mice wouldn’t remember anything until researchers stimulated targeted areas of the brain with a blue light. The blue light stimulated the engram cells associated with memory and the mice then remembered the shock from the box.

The scientists found fewer spines in the Alzheimer’s mice which are the conduit of brain activity. With repeated light stimulation, researchers were able to increase the number of spines or conduits through which synaptic connections are formed. The optical stimulation of the brain is called optogenetics. It involves inserting a special gene into the neurons to make them sensitive to blue light and then stimulating that part of the brain. Optogenetics is used as a psychotherapeutic treatment for mental illness such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is one step closer to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
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