Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health
Sea Snails Play Key Role in Strategy to Improve Memory Damaged by Aging
John H. "Jack " Byrne, Ph.D., and other UTHealth neuroscientists are using sea snails to learn more about memory
This snail has contributed to the understanding of learning and memory
Dec. 27, 2011 Neuroscientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are encouraged from test
using sea snails that their innovative learning strategy to help improve the brains memory may someday help people who suffer impairments
from aging, stroke, traumatic brain injury or congenital cognitive impairments.
This effort to help people with learning impairments is being aided by a species of sea snail known as Aplysia
The mollusk, which is used by researchers to study the brain, has much in common with other species including humans. Research
involving the snail has contributed to the understanding of learning and memory.
The proof-of-principle study was published on the Nature Neuroscience website on Dec. 25. The next steps in the
research may involve tests in other animal models and eventually humans.
The strategy was used to identify times when the brain was primed for learning, which in turn facilitated the scheduling
of learning sessions during these peak periods. The result was a significant increase in memory.
"We found that memory could be enhanced appreciably," said John H. "Jack" Byrne, Ph.D., senior author and chair of the
Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UTHealth Medical School.
Building on earlier research that identified proteins linked to memory, the investigators created a mathematical model
that tells researchers when the timing of the activity of these proteins is aligned for the best learning experience.
Right now, the scheduling of learning sessions is based on trial and error and is somewhat arbitrary. If the model proves
effective in follow-up studies, it could be used to identify those periods when learning potential is highest.
"When you give a training session, you are starting several different chemical reactions. If you give another session,
you get additional effects. The idea is to get the sessions in sync," Byrne said. "We have developed a way to adjust the training sessions so
they are tuned to the dynamics of the biochemical processes."
Two groups of snails received five learning sessions. One group received learning sessions at irregular intervals as
predicted by a mathematical model. Another group received training sessions in regular 20-minute intervals.
Five days after the learning sessions were completed, a significant increase in memory was detected in the group that was
trained with a schedule predicted by a computer. But, no increase was detected in the group with the regular 20-minute intervals.
The computer sorted through 10,000 different permutations in order to determine a schedule that would enhance memory.
To confirm their findings, researchers analyzed nerve cells in the brain of snails and found greater activity in the ones
receiving the enhanced training schedule, said Byrne, the June and Virgil Waggoner Chair of Neurobiology and Anatomy at UTHealth.
"This study shows the feasibility of using computational methods to assist in the design of training schedules that
enhance memory," Byrne said.
Other contributors from the UTHealth Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy include lead authors Yili Zhang, Ph.D.,
research fellow, and Rong-Yu Liu, Ph.D., senior research scientist, as well as George A. Heberton, medical student; Paul Smolen, Ph.D.,
assistant professor; Douglas A. Baxter, Ph.D., professor; and Len Cleary, Ph.D., professor.
The study, which is titled "Computational Design of Enhanced Learning Protocols," received support from the National
Institutes of Health and the Keck Center National Library of Medicine Training Program in Biomedical Informatics of the Gulf Coast Consortia.
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