Facebook Pixel Code
About Sickkids
About SickKids

February 24, 2009

Researchers at SickKids identify a protein critical for memory and learning

TORONTO – Researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) have made a breakthrough discovery that may eventually change the way physicians approach treatment of learning and memory defects in children and adults. Their findings are published in the current issue of PLoS Biology.

A team led by Dr. Roderick McInnes, SickKids Senior Scientist, Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Genetics and Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair in Molecular Medicine at the University of Toronto and Dr. Michael Salter, SickKids Senior Scientist and Head of the Program in Neurosciences & Mental Health and Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto, found that a protein called Neto1 is critical for memory and learning in mice. The researchers discovered that Neto1 is a key component of synapses, the highly specialized sites of communication between the brain’s individual neurons (nervous system cells). Mice genetically engineered to be deficient in Neto1 show a dramatic decrease in learning and in the way synapses adapt to brain activity.

“We have a new player in the game. Neto1 was never considered to be involved in how nerve cells communicate with one another. Now we found out that not only is it involved … it’s critical,” says Dr. Salter.

To determine whether the learning defect in the mice could be improved, the scientists gave the Neto1-lacking mice a drug that is currently being clinically tested in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Remarkably, in the mice with the inherited learning defect, learning and memory were restored to normal by the drug.

“It’s part of a paradigm shift in neuroscience,” says Dr. McInnes. “Neurologists and neuroscientists have always tended to think that if the brain is abnormal at birth, nothing can be done to improve intellectual function, and that special education was virtually the only assistance available. “

“Our findings, and other research over the past five years, suggest that the situation is more hopeful,” says Dr. McInnes. “It is no longer a fantasy to think that drug treatment might, in the future, be available for such patients.”

SickKids post-doctoral fellows and the study’s lead authors David Ng and Graham Pitcher say “The idea of using this type of drug, which belongs to class of drugs called ampakines, was that of our collaborator Dr. John Roder, of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto. It was an inspired suggestion.”

As promising as these findings are, it is still very early days before patients with intellectual disabilities could ever be offered a medication of this type. “We would be concerned about possible negative effects, including disordered thinking or emotional disturbances, which can’t be fully evaluated in an animal model,” says Dr. McInnes.

The study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and SickKids Foundation.

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), affiliated with the University of Toronto, is Canada’s most research-intensive hospital and the largest centre dedicated to improving children’s health in the country. As innovators in child health, SickKids improves the health of children by integrating care, research and teaching. Our mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized care by creating scientific and clinical advancements, sharing our knowledge and expertise and championing the development of an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca. SickKids is committed to healthier children for a better world.

For more information, please contact:

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-6380
email: matet.nebres@sickkids.ca

Suzanne Gold
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-7654 ext. 2059
email: suzanne.gold@sickkids.ca