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About SickKids

December 1, 2008

SickKids led study of mutant gene in fruit flies provides insight into learning and memory deficits

TORONTO – Learning and memory are key attributes of higher organisms. While many genes have already been linked to these functions, the precise molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying these processes have not always been understood. A recent international study led by Dr. Gabrielle Boulianne, Senior Scientist in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology program at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Molecular and Developmental Neurobiology, examines a Drosophila (fruit fly) gene that impacts extended memory and also plays a critical role in disrupting associative learning.

The study will be published today on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in advance of the print edition.

“This line of research is significant because although the gene was identified in fruit flies, it is also found in people. The gene plays a role in modifying neuropeptides, small molecules that play important roles in communication within the brain,” says Dr. Boulianne. “The research provides new insights into how memories are formed and stored within the fruit fly brain. However, it is still unclear what role, if any, this gene plays in human memory.”

Understanding how memories are normally formed can shed light into what goes wrong in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. The insights may also be useful in other areas of research, such as sleep patterns.

The fruit fly's relatively small central nervous system has made it a useful model for studying both learning and memory for more than thirty years. These decades of study have led to the identification of many mutant genes that are directly linked to learning and memory deficits.

Dr. Boulianne led an international team of researchers supported by SickKids postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Konstantin G. Iliadi. The team also included researchers from SickKids, the University of Toronto , the Pavlov Institute of Physiology in St. Petersburg , Russia and the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa in Haifa , Israel.

The research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Alzheimer's Association, SickKids Foundation, the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the Russian Academy of Sciences.