Today’s Weizmann Institute news stories include two new papers from the prolific lab of Prof. Yadin Dudai. The first is on a protein that boosts memory in rats. Dudai and his group have been investigating this protein for several years. Previously, they had managed to show that blocking the protein, even for a very short time, erases memories. Now, they have demonstrated that adding more of the protein to certain areas of the brain can strengthen memory. Note: They increased the protein via gene-carrying viruses that infiltrated the rats’ brain cells – not a clinic-ready technique. But until we find ways to medically enhance our memories, lead author Reut Shema reminds us that the brain is a dynamic organ – new learning is what causes this protein to be produced in the first place.
The second looks at learning and memory from a different angle altogether: The researchers have found a clue that might explain why things we “get” in a flash of insight tend to stick better in our memories than, say, facts we spend hours memorizing for a test. In a clever experiment, they got volunteers to experience “aha” moments while looking at camouflaged photos interspersed with quick glimpses of the undoctored images. Scans in the fMRI showed that the difference between remembering and forgetting the image behind the camouflage was activity in the amygdala – often called the brain’s emotion center. So that satisfying “click” we feel when insight comes out of the blue might just be our amygdala deciding that what we’ve just figured out is also worth remembering.
(click here to see the solution to the image)
In the last item, quantum mechanics meets molecular biology – areas that, logically, should have nothing in common. Yet, it turns out that a phenomenon that physicists can normally only observe at extremely low temperatures can take place in everyday DNA – at room temperature. That phenomenon is spin selection – a preference for one of the two directions of angular momentum in subatomic particles. A team from the Weizmann Institute and the University of Münster in Germany observed the selection of electron spins when they attached DNA to metal electrodes. Apparently, this ability to choose one spin over the other comes from the “spin” of the DNA – the direction in which it twists around to form its double helix. Watch this space for future “spintronic” devices with DNA components.