by: MARY CARMICHAEL
T O SAY THAT APLYSIA CALIFORNICUS IS ONE OF NATURE’S least glamorous beasts would be too kind. A hermaphroditic marine snail with mottled purple skin, it keeps to itself, responding to disturbances by emitting a murky fluid that stains the water around it. Its “brain” ( if you can call it that,) is stunningly simple, with only a few thousand oversize neurons. It is not, in short, a likely candidate for glory in the animal kingdom. But a few years from now, much of the baby-boom generation maybe greatly indebted to this unprepossessing little creature. Aplysia may look homely, but to scientists hoping to develop memory-enhancing medicine, it is a thing of beauty.
Thanks to the neurological research of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel and others, Aplysia7s minimal nervous system is helping scientists to make sense of how memory works on the biochemical level. The molecules of memory in sea slugs, it turns out, aren’t that different from some of those in humans. They are now one of the many inspirations for drugs that may someday ward off the forgetfulness that plagues so many people as they grow older. As Americans’ average age creeps upward, the search for medicines that will keep them sharp is accelerating. “We’re all very, very avidly grinding up cells trying to get at the molecules says Dr. Scott Small of Columbia University Medical Center.
No pill to improve memory, aside from alternative remedies of dubious effectiveness, is currently on the market. But several small biotech companies are launching drugs grounded in the latest research with a few already in the early stages of clinical trials that could he finished in as little as “two years, if we’re lucky,” says Kandel, who is now at CUMC and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Some of the most promising candidates have their roots in Aplvsia studies. Others take their cues from even more improbable sources like the molecular consequences of smoking, focusing on some of the same receptors that nicotine targets. (Who knew it had benefits?) “These are very exciting times for treating memory loss,” says Steven Siegelhaum, a neuroscientist at CUMC and HHMT. And with trials soon to yield results, they’re about to get even more exciting.
It has been along, hard slog to reach this point. Scientists now know that the brain —relying on chemical cascades kicked off by neurotransmittcrs—first stores short-term information in the prefrontal cortex and then transforms selected bits into long-term memories via the hippocampus, a sea-horse-shaped region tucked deep in the folds of the temporal lobe above the ear. Even such fundamental knowledge was unthinkable some 30 years ago. The concept of memory is so complex that many mid-century researchers shied away from studying it, claiming any attempt would he an example of futile reductionism.
December 6, 2004, (pgs. 45-46)
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