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Scientists discover how memory gene works

Human memory is something that is not yet understood by researchers (imagepoint)

Researchers at Zurich University have made an important step in improving understanding of how the human memory works.

They have for the first time been delving into the human genetic sequence to identify new memory-related genes.

One of their most important discoveries is the function of the Kibra gene, which helps regulate memory performance.

The scientists say the results of the study could help in the search for solutions to memory related diseases such as Alzheimer's and depression.

The research, headed by Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Dominique de Quervain from Zurich university's Division of Psychiatry Research - and done in collaboration with Dietrich Stephan from the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, United States - is published in Friday's edition of the magazine, Science.

"The main objective of our research group is to identify the molecular underpinnings of human memory because very little is known about how memory works," Papassotiropoulos told swissinfo.

"Our work was to establish a new way of looking at things based on new information about the human genome. We hoped to identify novel and as yet undescribed memory-related genes in humans."

Genes

This is how the team was able to identify Kibra, a gene which had been previously pointed out but whose function was previously unknown in humans, said Papassotiropoulos.

To see how Kibra worked, scientists decided to do memory tests on around 350 people. They separated them into "good" and "bad" performers and then looked at their genetic blueprint or genome.

They also scanned brain activity during certain memory tasks. The Kibra gene was found to be linked to the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory performance and is often badly damaged in memory-related diseases.

"There are many diseases which affect memory such as depression or anxiety disorders," explained Papassotiropoulos.

"If you have a very good memory you can also have problems with, for example, post traumatic stress syndrome."

The professor said the team wanted to find out how normal memory works in humans because this would help with the development of drugs to target these types of illnesses as well as Alzheimer's.

New technique

Research using the genome differs from previous studies in that it does not with animals.

Usually researchers look for what is potentially important in memory in model organisms, such as rats or worms, and then see if there is a homologue gene in humans. The gene is then tested to see how important it is for memory performance in humans.

The genome-based approach was novel because it meant that the process was turned around, explained Papassotiropoulos.

"In fact we have identified Kibra and now the next step is to see whether this is related to basic mechanisms of memory and learning in flies and worms," he said.

In the future the team plans to examine genes related to memory performance and to re-scan the genome using better technology.

"We also want to understand why people remember emotional events better than neutral ones, which is a crucial question for psychiatric diseases," said Papassotiropoulos.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

In brief

The Zurich University research was headed by Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Dominique de Quervain from Division of Psychiatry Research.

Papassotiropoulos is the genetics expert and de Quervain the memory expert and the project functions by combining this know-how.

Both men hope to continue their research in this domain and uncover new important memory related genes.

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The genome

The genome is the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.

The human genome is composed of 23 pairs of chromosomes with a total of approximately three billion DNA base pairs organized into an estimated 20,000-25,000 genes.

The Human Genome Project began in 1990 as an effort by researchers from around the world to map and sequence the human genome.

In February 2001 the initial analysis of the human genome sequence was published. The project was completed in 2003 but analysis of the data is continuing.

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