A pill to prevent people forgetting things has come a step closer with the discovery of a protein in the brain that stimulates nerve cell growth.
Scientists believe that the protein chemical, cypin, is involved in learning and memory because of the role it plays in forming connections between brain cells.
It may be possible to develop memory-enhancing drugs that mimic the protein's natural effect, or at least stimulate it to work when something goes wrong, they said.
Cypin appears to be crucial for the growth of fine filaments between nerve cells, which could explain how memories are formed, said Professor Bonnie Firestein of Rutgers State University of New Jersey.
When nerve cells, or neurons, fail to form new branches it may lead to debilitating conditions such as the gradual memory loss suffered by Alzheimer's patients, Professor Firestein said.
"The identification of cypin and understanding how it works in the brain opens up new avenues for the treatment of serious neurological disorders," she said.
The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that the cypin protein in the brain works as an enzyme in shaping neurons by the process of branching.
"One end of a neuron looks like a tree and, in the hippocampus [a brain region involved in memory], cypin controls the growth of its branches," Professor Firestein said. "An increase in the number of branches provides additional sites where a neuron can receive information that it can pass along, enhancing communication."
Cypin was first identified in humans in 1999, but only in the latest study was it found to be present in the brain as an active enzyme - a molecule that speeds up biological reactions.
Cypin works by glueing structural "building blocks" together inside the long filaments, or dendrites, that grow out of neurons, the scientists discovered.
Researchers have previously shown that these dendrites and the connections they make are crucial for making and storing memories.Reuse content