Developments to Watch
A BOOST FOR BATTERED MEMORIES
HISTORY MAY DESIGNATE 1994 THE YEAR OF THE BRAIN
Gain. In January, neuroscientist Gary S. Lynch of the University of California at Irvine showed that synthetic compounds called ampakines enhance memory skills in rats. Last month, Lynch's company, Cortex Pharmaceuticals Inc., began clinical trials in humans. Now, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore think they have discovered the brain's natural mechanism for speeding up messages, leading to sharper memories.
Led by Professor Richard Huganir, a team located specific sites where phosphate molecules bind to receptors, which act as communication ports among cells of the brain. Depending on the site, the phosphates may cause receptors to open up for longer periods of time than normal. That allows extracellular calcium to flow in, triggering heightened memory states.
Megadosing phosphates isn't wise, Huganir warns. Excess phosphate could actually throw the fragile control mechanisms of nerve cells out of whack. Still, learning how receptors function should help scientists find new compounds to reverse damage from strokes or Alzheimer's disease.EDITED BY RUTH COXETER