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Roche scientists advance understanding of memory

A microscopic view of Caenorhabditis elegans, a humble nematode worm less than one millimetre (1,000 microns) long, which has aided our understanding of memory Keystone Archive

Scientists, trying to understand how organisms learn, have identified a key molecule which improves memory in worms. They said the discovery could lead to treatment of cognitive illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, depression or schizophrenia.

The scientists, who work for the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant, Roche, have been studying a common roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans.

They found the worms learned better to find food in areas with a specific temperature if they were genetically modified to overproduce a calcium-sensing molecule called NCS-1.

They saw that worms with excess NCS-1 “learn faster, have a better performance level and a long memory, thus they are ‘smarter’,” Roche said in a statement.

The discovery opens a new target for drugs which address cognitive disorders.

Cognition is the sum of thinking skills which include perception, awareness, reasoning, intellect, judgement, imagination and memory.

“Those skills are significantly diminished with ageing and are severely impaired in Alzheimer’s, schizophrenic or depressed patients,” the Swiss drugs and diagnostics group said.

“Understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in learning and memory could allow scientists to develop medicines which improve cognition, an important medical need.”

Caenorhabditis Elegans, whose 19,000 genes were mapped completely in 1998, has around half the number that humans have. The worm seems to be an attractive model for identifying and validating potential drug targets and pathways, Roche said.

swissinfo with agencies

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