AMPA receptors are present throughout the brain, and are involved in synaptic connections between brain cells. These AMPA receptors play a role in boosting both learning and memory, and ampakines are substances that amplify or enhance these signals. Some investigators are trying to develop drugs that can amplify the AMPA signal, while others believe that this is a waste of time because ampakines share many similarities to caffeine, which improves attention and mental arousal with no direct impact on memory.
In animal models, a number of other substances can amplify long-term potentiation, which is the physiologic property of cells to remain depolarized, or stimulated, for an extended period of time. Kandel and other researchers believe that at the cellular level, long-term potentiation is the method by which a memory trace becomes solidified and is eventually transferred into long-term memory storage. A number of chemicals can amplify the effects of long-term potentiation. These include substances that stimulate dopamine receptors and others that inhibit the enzyme phosphodiesterase. In animal studies, these chemical substances improve transfer of information from short- to long-term storage. But as of yet, there are no clinical studies to back up these intriguing laboratory findings.
Earlier, I referred to Dennis Choi's work on zinc and memory. Although few other researchers are putting much time and energy into studying metallic elements that are known to be involved in essential enzyme pathways, my guess is that this will change in the future. Sophisticated new technologies will help us to decipher what exactly these trace metals like chromium and selenium are doing in the brain. Future therapies may be based on increasing or decreasing the levels of these metallic elements in a targeted fashion, taking into account the delicate balance that exists between these metallic elements and a variety of processes in the brain.
The elusive prion, discovered by Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner, must not be forgotten. These microscopic prions play a role not only in neurological disorders, but possibly in memory loss due to the aging process itself. I suspect that we will hear a lot more about the role of prions in memory loss.
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