Cancer drug sharpens memory in rats

"This drug could rescue the ability to make new memories that are rich in detail and content, even in the worst case scenarios," says Kasia M. Bieszczad. (Credit: Joe King/Flickr)

A drug commonly used to treat cancer may be a way to sharpen memory, make it easier to learn a language, and even help people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers say when they gave the drug RGFP966 to rats, it made them more attuned to what they were hearing and more able to retain and remember information. The rats were also able to develop new connections that allowed memories to be transmitted between brain cells.

Their findings appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“Memory-making in neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease is often poor or absent altogether once a person is in the advanced stages of the disease,” says Kasia M. Bieszczad, assistant professor of behavioral and systems neuroscience at Rutgers University. “This drug could rescue the ability to make new memories that are rich in detail and content, even in the worst case scenarios.”

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In dementias such as Alzheimer’s, brain cells shrink and die because the synapses that transfer information from one neuron to another are no longer strong and stable. There is no therapeutic treatment available that reverses this situation.

The drug administered in the new study is a HDAC inhibitors—commonly used in cancer therapies to stop the activation of genes that turn normal cells into cancerous ones. In the brain, the drug makes the neurons more plastic, better able to make connections and create positive changes that enhance memory.

Researchers discovered that the rats, taught to listen to a certain sound in order to receive a reward, and given the drug after training, remembered what they learned and responded correctly to the tone at a greater rate than those not given the drug.

The rodents were also more “tuned in” to the relevant acoustic signals they heard during their training—an important finding Bieszczad says because setting up the brain to better process and store significant sounds is critical to human speech and language.

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“People learning to speak again after a disease or injury as well as those undergoing cochlear implantation to reverse previous deafness, may also be helped by this type of therapeutic treatment in the future,” Bieszczad says. “The application could even extend to people with delayed language learning abilities or people trying to learn a second language.”

This hypersensitivity in processing the auditory information enabled the neurons in the rats brains to reorganize and create new pathways—allowing more of the information they learned to become a long-term memory.

“People normally remember an experience with limited detail—not everything we see, hear and feel is remembered,” Bieszczad says. “What has happened here is that memory becomes closer to a snapshot of the actual experience instead of being sparse, limited or inaccurate.”

Source: Rutgers University