Now, where did I leave my memory pill?

A memory pill to help old people learn new tricks is being developed by scientists who believe they will soon discover an antidote to amnesia.

Medical researchers said yesterday that they may have found an explanation for why memory begins to fade in later life, a discovery that couldlead to the development of a memory-enhancing drug. The research is focused on a strain of laboratory mouse that is remarkable for its ability to learn and remember new things in old age better than it could in its youth.

Karl Giese, a memory scientist at University College London, said the mouse lacks a gene that plays a crucial role in learning when the animal is young but which is positively harmful for its memory in later years. The same gene exists in humans and probably has the same function in causing forgetfulness in middle age.

By blocking the gene's activity in people older than 50, it should be possible to improve their memory. "The idea of a memory pill is very exciting," Dr Giese said. "It would be fantastic if this turned out to be the beginning of the development of a memory pill for the elderly.

"I can foresee that we will be able in the future to improve learning and memory abilities in old age - basically to restore them to a young age," he added. "This would have very important implications for society, because the average lifespan is increasing and, along with lifespan, we want to increase the quality of life."

Mice, like humans, suffer a decline in the ability to learn and remember new things as they grow old. The scientists at UCL's Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, working with the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the gene, which is involved in the transmission of nerve signals, appears to play a key role.

It is not known why the gene is beneficial for learning in young mice, yet hinders their memory in older age. However, Dr Giese said blocking the gene in older people would have clear benefits. "We want to use pharmacology to mimic the same effects, to test the idea [that] we can, ultimately, develop a memory pill for the elderly," he said.

Dr Giese warned that bringing a memory pill to market could take another 10 years of research, but the benefits would be significant for an ageing population. "Such a pill should bring your learning and memory ability up to that of a young age," he said.

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