19 September 2010

Emory's Smart New Mice are Cognitive Knockouts

The hippocampus plays a key role in our ability to remember what happens to us, and in navigating our way through the world around us. There is a great deal about the hippocampus which remains unknown. Consider the hippocampal area CA2, pictured above. Recent research from the medical school at Emory University has found that in mice, knocking out a gene (RGS14) radically changes the activity of hippocampal CA2 -- leading to mice with markedly enhanced spatial learning and object recognition abilities, when compared with their littermate controls.

Here is more:
Mice with a disabled RGS14 gene are able to remember objects they'd explored and learn to navigate mazes better than regular mice, suggesting that RGS14's presence limits some forms of learning and memory.
The results were published online in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Since RGS14 appears to hold mice back mentally, John Hepler, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine, says he and his colleagues have been jokingly calling it the "Homer Simpson gene."
RGS14 is primarily turned on in one particular part -- called CA2 -- of the hippocampus, a region of the brain known for decades to be involved in consolidating new learning and forming new memories. However, the CA2 region lies off the beaten path scientifically and it's not clear what its functions are, Hepler says.
RGS14, which is also found in humans, was identified more than a decade ago. Hepler and his colleagues have previously shown that the RGS14 protein can regulate several molecules involved in processing different types of signals in the brain that are known to be important for learning and memory. They believe RGS14 is a key control protein for these signals. _SD

Although the researchers have not identified any problems in the RGS14 knockout mice in terms of development or behaviour, it is too early to know whether such a simple gene knockout procedure in humans would be safe or effective -- for purposes of cognitive enhancement.

The finding is intriguing in the sense that the deletion of a single gene can have such a profound effect on the cognitive prospects of a mouse. A mutation in the right place could have the same result, in terms of improved learning. How many similar transformational surprises are waiting in the human genome?

We should not expect that any environmental intervention could come close to achieving a similar transformation of these specific cognitive skills as the genetic deletion achieved. Considering the somewhat conservative nature of evolution since the last great extinction event, it is unlikely that we have evolved in a way to take the greatest advantage of the potentials of our brains. In other words, our brains are likely to have many such genetic tweaks that are waiting to be discovered, to give us a leg up on our present and future challenges.

At this time it is still possible to envision a "next level" of human development. But such a hypothetical plane of development can only be reached by genetic means. How radical must such a transformation be? That depends upon where one starts. If humans continue on the present descent into Idiocracy, there will come a time when it will be too late to reverse the trend.

The easiest choice is to go back to sleep. Because, if you choose to be awake, the things you are forced to experience may be more than you can bear.

H/T Brian Wang

More on the "molecular conspiracy against plasticity" occurring in CA2

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Blogger fboness said...

This has me re-reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

Sunday, 19 September, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

Right. A classic.

I'm not sure what we will do with all these smart mice!

Sunday, 26 September, 2010  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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