Light Sensitive Biological Switch Could Unlock the Mysteries of Human Memory


Growing up we all heard the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” but research has told us that this phrase is not just a way to get kids to do their homework. In the same way that physical exercise creates muscle connections and strengthens certain muscle groups, the mind also modifies and strengthens itself when we repeatedly attempt to access or reinforce information we’re trying to learn. This is known as synaptic plasticity, and it is the biological activity that allows us to memorize information, strengthen existing knowledge and learn something new.

But what if synaptic plasticity and memory become adversely affected? In the case of certain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia these neurological learned connections allow people to retain information and learn new things begin to break down. Scientists have been looking for new clues to increase their understanding of the mind specifically regarding the neurobiology of synaptic plasticity. This is in an effort to stave off, treat and even prevent debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s in the future. And they have just discovered something amazing.

A team of German and French researchers had recently synthesized a light-dependent switch that enables them to control the activity of very specific neuro-receptors which are crucial in forming and storing memories. This synthesized chemical is known as azobenzene-triazole-glutamate (ATG), and it acts like a neurotransmitter. When ATG is exposed to UV light, it becomes activated and begins to move back and forth between neural pathways (how information travels through the mind) through the synaptic cleft between them to move information. Once the light goes off, ATG deactivates in a matter of milliseconds giving researchers very precise control over the reaction.

What ATG presents is a new way for researchers to gain additional insight into synaptic plasticity and memory formation. This ability to control and study memory and synaptic plasticity will mean that scientists will be able to accelerate their research into neurodegenerative disorders and hopefully provide some answers that will lead them to possible treatment options and even a cure.

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