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Boosting memory in the blink of an eye.

Boosting memory in the blink of an eye

Neuroscientists studying learning in rabbits have identified a drug that, with further testing, may yield a memory-enhancing treatment for humans afflicted with brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

Rabbits shed their age-related difficulties in learning a laboratory task when injected with nimodipine, a drug that blocks the action of calcium in the brain, report Richard A. Deyo and his colleagues at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago in the Feb. 10 SCIENCE.

Nimodipine is used to improve blood flow in the brains of elderly stroke patients. Of particular interest to the Northwestern researchers, memory problems created by a stroke often abate with nimodipine administration.

To study this effect more closely, they conducted a simple experiment on 36 rabbits. The sample included both young (about 3 months) and aging (about 3 years) adults; half received infusions of an inactive substance and the rest got nimodipine. Most of the rabbits heard a tone, followed by a puff of air aimed at one ye, causing them to blink. They receive 80 such trials per day for up to 15 days, or until they learned to blink in response to the tone. Researchers randomly presented some of the nimodipine-treated rabbits with the tone and the air puffs.

Aging rabbits given the inactive substance required an average of 1,000 trials to learn the task, twice as many as their younger counterparts. Not only did both age groups markedly improve on nimodipine, but aging rabbits learned the task over an average of about 360 trials -- virtually the same rate as the younger animals. Randomly conditioned nimodipine rabbits, young or old, did not learn to blink in response to the tone.

In humn experiments, substantial leaning deficits in the same conditioned eye-blink response begin to appear among people 50 years of age and older with no evidence of brain disease, Deyo says.

He and his co-workers plan to study the ey-blink response in Alzheimer's patients before and after nimodipine treatment.

Nimodipine may somehow improve learning by inhibiting calcium flow in the smooth muscle of the blood vessels feeding the brain, Deyo says. He suspects, however, that nimodipine and several similar drugs block calcium transmission in the hippocampus, a brain structure crucial to memory.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 11, 1989
Words:375
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