Oregon State University neuroscientist strives to understand biological reasons for memory loss
Memory not as good as it used to be?
A researcher at Oregon State University says that’s normal: As we age, our brains just don’t remember things as well as we did when they were younger.
As it turns out, there are biological reasons for that, said Kathy Magnusson, a neuroscientist at OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute.
The good news? Researchers are starting to get a better understanding of how those biological processes work.
The even better news: Researchers also are getting a sense of what we might be able to do to help even our aging brains function better, and the options include the esoteric (there’s a possibility gene therapy eventually might work in the future) to the everyday: Nutritional supplements, physical exercise or even just getting your old brain to learn some new stuff.
Even when she was studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Minnesota, Magnusson said, she was fascinated by the brain. (Magnusson practiced veterinary medicine before returning to school to study neuroscience.)
“I was amazed at how much we know” about the brain, she said in a recent interview at her OSU office — “and how much we don’t know.”
And the biological processes that make the brain work are nothing short of astonishing, she noted: A neurotransmitter makes the leap to another neuron, “and I remember a phone number.”
The more we understand those biological processes — and how they change over time — the better shot we have at slowing or possibly even stopping any cognitive decline.
Magnusson pointed, for example, to recent OSU research — supported by the National Institutes of Health — in which scientists in her laboratory used genetic therapy in mice to help improve their memory and cognitive abilities.
The experiment involved important functional players in the brain known as NMDA receptors – think of them as molecular switches for learning and memory. The receptors are made up of various subunits, and Magnusson is interested in particular in one of them, the GluN2B subunit.
Here’s one of the things that has caught Magnusson’s attention: These particular subunits are highly expressed at birth, and that helps infants and small children learn and absorb memories. But as we age, the subunits become much less expressed.
“The gene is being shut down,” Magnusson said, “and that continues to progress with aging. We have to figure out how to turn that gene back on,” hence the genetic work with mice.
However, she said, gene therapy isn’t yet widely accepted for human subjects: “It’s unlikely that we’re going to use that just for memory decline during aging at this point,” she said.
But researchers have reported some success just with behaviorial testing — putting animal subjects through different tests, which suggests that even older adults can learn new tricks. And some studies have suggested that anti-inflammatory drugs – an area of considerable interest at the Linus Pauling Institute — can help increase the expression of the subunit.
In any event, it’s a good time to be working on brain research: “There definitely is more interest,” Magnusson said. “We’ve got a lot of good minds working on it.”
And she’ll keep plugging away as well, even though it can be rough sledding, as she tells her students: “Research moves slowly. I will put in some weird hours and go the extra mile because I want to know what the answer is.”