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Hopkins researchers discover how brain protein might control memory

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have figured out how one particular protein contributes to long-term memory and helps the brain remember things longer than an hour or two. The findings are reported in two papers in the Nov. 9 issue of Neuron.

The protein, called Arc, has been implicated in memory-linked behaviors ranging from song learning in birds to rodents being aware of 3-D space. In people, Arc may be one culprit behind certain long-term memory-based behaviors like drug addiction, the researchers say.

"We think Arc controls how brain cells learn and associate behaviors and remember them over a long period of time," says Paul F. Worley, M.D., professor of neuroscience and neurology at Hopkins and director of both studies. "For example, the person who quits smoking can wean himself from cravings at home, at work or outside. But if you put him in a bar with a drink in his hand, his brain remembers that former association and suddenly the craving returns. These types of long-term associations are memories wired in your brain."

Years ago, Worley and his colleagues, studying laboratory rats, found that their brains made lots of Arc protein while the animals were awake and active. In fact, it has been long known that stimulating individual nerve cells - by an act as simple as exploring new environs, for example - causes the cells to make more Arc protein almost immediately. "Arc is an instant and reliable readout for active cells in the brain," says Worley. But although scientists knew that active cells were making copious amounts of Arc, no one knew exactly what Arc was doing in those cells until now.

To figure out what Arc was doing, the Hopkins team looked for what other proteins Arc "plays" with. Using Arc protein as bait, they went on a molecular fishing expedition in a pond filled with other proteins normally found in the brain and hooked two known to be involved in transporting materials into and out of cells.

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Source:Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions


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