University of Florida researchers have identified a subtype of a specific receptor in the brain that is critical for “working memory,” or the ability to hold information in mind for a short time — an ability that often diminishes with normal aging. In a new study published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, the UF team details how the loss of that specific receptor predicts the severity of working-memory impairment due to aging. The researchers further found they could use a drug to positively affect those receptors to enhance working memory in aged rats with cognitive decline. The findings suggest a potential future pathway for drug treatment to target those receptors and improve working memory in humans.
“Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind for a
relatively short duration, for example, the ability to look up a phone
number and remember it until you get to the phone,” said principal
investigator Jennifer L. Bizon, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and
psychiatry in the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of
the University of Florida. “The ability to do that simple process of
holding information over a period of about 30 seconds is critical for
planning and carrying out daily activities and is the foundation for
more complex cognitive operations such as decision-making.
“We know across species — rats, non-human primates and people — that
working memory declines over the course of the lifespan,” Bizon said.
“It’s also very vulnerable in a number of neuropsychiatric diseases,
such as schizophrenia.”
Previous studies have pointed to receptors for the neurotransmitter
glutamate in working memory function. The new UF study, led by
postdoctoral fellow Joseph A. McQuail, is significant because it
identifies glutamate receptors containing a specific protein subunit as
critical for working memory and its decline across the lifespan.
“Many treatments have sought to broadly modulate these receptors to
improve working memory in schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric
diseases and have not been successful,” Bizon said.
The new findings “give us a more selective target for treating working memory deficits,” she said.
The UF research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the
National Science Foundation and the McKnight Brain Research Foundation.