While neuroscientists have known for a long time that new proteins have to be made for new memories to be formed, “We still had several layers of questions,” said Weifeng Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and senior author of the new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “How fast is protein synthesis required for memory encoding? What targets, or protein syntheses correlate with the encoding process? And are those targets required for the encoding?”
To find out, Xu’s team, including lead author and Picower Institute research scientist Kendrick Jones, conducted experiments in mice in a memory-making region called the hippocampus. The proteins that they found quickly team up, neurogranin and FMRP, are also present in humans.
In fact, abnormalities in both proteins have been associated with human neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders – FMRP stands for “Fragile X Mental Retardation protein” because it is central to the genetic, autism-like condition Fragile X syndrome; and prior studies have linked neurogranin to schizophrenia and intellectual disability. The new study therefore not only provides insights into how the brain remembers new places, but also provides new hints about how problems involving these two proteins in other parts of the brain, such as the frontal cortex, could undermine cognition in those diseases.