Annual Report FY 2004 - Research at Cornell

13. Mysteries of Human Memory

Barbara Hempstead, Weill Cornell Medical College, Hematology/Oncology, and National Institutes of Health colleague Bai Lu identified the key events and proteins involved in long-term memory. Their findings provide insight into the biochemical basis of memory and may help in the development of drugs to ameliorate memory disorders. The brain is filled with billions of neurons, each of which is connected to thousands of other neurons. The tiny gaps between neurons are synapses. Scientists believe that the brain “learns” by storing information in networks of neurons connected by efficient synapses, and it “remembers” by activating the proper networks. Forgetting information occurs when the synapses become less efficient so that the network holding the information disappears into the vastness of the networks in the brain. For more than a decade researchers have been studying synaptic efficacy and the role that certain proteins play, and working to identify the exact proteins and the interactions among them that allow a long-term memory to take hold. In Nobel Prize–winning work (2000) some of the crucial proteins in the process were identified. Hampstead’s and Lu’s research has shown that the local generation of a neurotrophin protein, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is the elusive key event that must occur to lock long-term memory in place.

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