Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

Protein injections could reverse Alzheimers

April 19, 2016

While life expectations have been increasing across the globe, the time spent suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have also been increasing. In the last decade this increase has not been checked by any breakthroughs in drugs to brake the onset of, or reverse the progression of, dementia. While life expectancies are approaching 90 years, the period at the end of life with serious disability is approaching 10 years. Among the elderly there is now a greater fear of the degradations at the end of life than of the end itself.

Now, the IL-33 protein is showing the potential of actually reversing some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Injections of the protein succeeded in restoring the memory of mice which had been debilitated by an Alzheimer’s like affliction. The potential is that injections – if the protein acts in a similar way with humans – could restore the memory of Alzheimer’s patients within a week. It is hoped to start clinical trials by the end of the year and that could leave to approved drugs becoming available within 5 years.

The Scotsman:

A protein which can reverse symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in mice could provide a key to potential treatments, Scottish scientists said.

Researchers from Glasgow University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) discovered that injections of the protein IL-33 could improve cognitive function in mice with Alzheimer’s-like disease. …

….. Glasgow expert Professor Eddy Liew discovered the IL-33 protein could digest existing plaque deposits and prevent the build up of new ones, which led to an improvement in memory and brain function among mice within a week. Professor Liew said: “The relevance of this finding to human Alzheimer’s is at present unclear. But there are encouraging hints. For example, previous genetic studies have shown an association between IL-33 mutations and Alzheimer’s disease in European and Chinese populations. Exciting as it is, there is some distance between laboratory findings and clinical applications.”

The IL-33 protein is produced mostly in the nervous system but patients with Alzheimer’s had less IL-33 than people without the condition, he said. The study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS), also found the IL-33 curbed the inflammation in the brain tissue, which has been shown previously to increase plaque and tangle formation.

alzheimer's brain scan

alzheimer’s brain scan (image BBC)

IL-33 is made in the body and the highest concentrations are found in the brain and the spinal cord. Those with Alzheimer’s have depressed levels. Alzheimer’s disease is widely believed to be driven by the production and deposition of the β-amyloid peptide (Aβ). The IL-33 protein is thought to activate the body’s immune system which in turn attacks the β-amyloid which causes the characteristic Alzheimer’s plaque.



If you want it to survive, print it out!

February 17, 2015

The Google VP Vint Cerf has been warning of the dangers of the loss of digital material as newer programs become unable to read older files and as digital material is corrupted.


Piles of digitised material – from blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, to official documents such as court rulings and emails – may be lost forever because the programs needed to view them will become defunct, Google’s vice-president has warned.

Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Vint Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we faced a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot”, where old computer files become useless junk.

Cerf called for the development of “digital vellum” to preserve old software and hardware so that out-of-date files could be recovered no matter how old they are.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” he said.

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future,” he added.

It’s my birthday today and it comes as a sobering thought as I look around my study, that the only things in here that are older than myself are around 20 books which were published and printed in the first half of the 20th century. There is not a single artefact that is older than me. There is one book here printed towards the end of the 19th century.

If you want any writings or images or presentations to have a chance of surviving 100 years, PRINT IT OUT. That may not be enough but it stands a better chance on paper than as a digital file. (I have a large granite rock – a 2m tall “obelisk” – in my garden and possibly the surest way to leave my mark would be to carve something into it. It will have to be symbols since the alphabet may be long forgotten in 10,000 years).

Monkeys can learn how to use a mirror

January 11, 2015

Self-awareness is surely more than just passing a “mirror test”. There would seem to be a continuum between the two discrete states of “not being self-aware” (a stone) to being “fully self-aware” (higher primates and humans), though I am not entirely sure if even higher levels of self-awareness are conceivable. I take self-awareness to be on a higher plane than self-consciousness. Self-awareness is the recognition of a tree as “being in a forest” whereas self-consciousness is just being the “tree”. Empirically, sentience is an even higher cognitive capability where sentience requires self-awareness which in turn requires self-consciousness.

Most mammals are conscious of self or at least of self-interest. Even a tree for that matter could be said to exhibit self-interest. Passing the mirror test seems to be a fairly conclusive evidence of well-developed, self-awareness but that is not to say that some degree of self-awareness is not possible even when the mirror test is not passed. Whales, dolphins and some elephants have passed the mirror test along with most of the higher primates (gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos). The magpie is the only bird known which has passed the test. Monkeys (rhesus monkeys, macaques) do not pass the test but are clearly self-conscious.

Now, new research has shown that rhesus monkeys can be taught to make use of a mirror such that they could pass the mirror test. Can awareness therefore be taught?

Liangtang Chang, Gin Fang, Shikun Zhang, Mu-Ming Poo, Neng Gong. Mirror-Induced Self-Directed Behaviors in Rhesus Monkeys after Visual-Somatosensory Training. Current Biology, January 2015 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.016

EurekAlertUnlike humans and great apes, rhesus monkeys don’t realize when they look in a mirror that it is their own face looking back at them. But, according to a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on January 8, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. What’s more, once rhesus monkeys in the study developed mirror self-recognition, they continued to use mirrors spontaneously to explore parts of their bodies they normally don’t see.

“Our findings suggest that the monkey brain has the basic ‘hardware’ [for mirror self-recognition], but they need appropriate training to acquire the ‘software’ to achieve self-recognition,” says Neng Gong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In earlier studies, scientists had offered monkeys mirrors of different sizes and shapes for years, even beginning at a young age, Gong explains. While the monkeys could learn to use the mirrors as tools for observing other objects, they never showed any signs of self-recognition. When researchers marked the monkeys’ faces and presented them with mirrors, they didn’t touch or examine the spot or show any other self-directed behaviors in front of those mirrors in the way that even a very young person would do.

In the new study, Gong and his colleagues tried something else. They sat the monkeys in front of a mirror and shined a mildly irritating laser light on the monkeys’ faces. After 2 to 5 weeks of the training, those monkeys had learned to touch face areas marked by a spot they couldn’t feel in front of a mirror. They also noticed virtual face marks in mirroring video images on a screen. They had learned to pass the standard mark test for mirror self-recognition.

Most of the trained monkeys–five out of seven–showed typical mirror-induced self-directed behaviors, such as touching the mark on the face or ear and then looking and/or smelling at their fingers as if they were thinking something like, “Hey, what’s that there on my face?” They also used the mirrors in other ways that were unprompted by the researchers, to inspect other body parts. …… 

I note that Gordon Gallup Jr. who developed the mark test is not convinced:

Gordon Gallup Jr., an evolutionary psychologist at the State University of New York at Albany, who was not involved with the research, developed the “mark test,” which is essentially the gold standard for measuring whether an animal possesses self-recognition. [8 Humanlike Behaviors of Primates] ….

Gallup, who developed the mark test, called the study “fundamentally flawed,” because it merely demonstrated that the animals could be trained to do something, not that they understood what they were doing.

“I bet I could train a pigeon to pick the correct answers to the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE),” Gallup told Live Science. “If the pigeon got [the maximum GRE score], would it be qualified for Harvard University?”

Perhaps, given self-consciousness, much of what we call awareness can be taught. Maybe that is how babies develop; an inbuilt self-consciousness which then becomes self-aware as learning (mainly self-taught) occurs. Learning requires memory and maybe that is why this self-taught awareness is what also deteriorates with the memory loss that accompanies the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Cheers (hic)! Champagne research at the University of Reading.

May 9, 2013

Back in 2009, Dr Jeremy Spencer from the University of Reading published a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition about how drinking champagne was good for your heart.

image – LiveScience

Research from the University of Reading suggests that two glasses of Champagne a day may be good for your heart and circulation. The researchers have found that drinking Champagne wine daily in moderate amounts causes improvements in the way blood vessels function. …… 

….. Dr Jeremy Spencer, from the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences said: “Our research has shown that drinking around two glasses of Champagne can have beneficial effects on the way blood vessels function, in a similar way to that observed with red wine. We always encourage a responsible approach to alcohol consumption, but the fact that drinking Champagne has the potential to reduce the risks of suffering from cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke, is very exciting news.” 

University of Reading

Four years on he is now Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry and Medicine and – presumably – many cases of champagne later, he has just published another paper on the benefits of champagne in improving memory and holding back dementia .

New research shows that drinking one to three glasses of champagne a week may counteract the memory loss associated with ageing, and could help delay the onset of degenerative brain disorders, such as dementia.

Scientists at the University of Reading have shown that the phenolic compounds found in champagne can improve spatial memory, which is responsible for recording information about one’s environment, and storing the information for future navigation. …. 

….. Professor Jeremy Spencer, Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University of Reading, said: “These exciting results illustrate for the first time that the moderate consumption of champagne has the potential to influence cognitive functioning, such as memory.  Such observations have previously been reported with red wine, through the actions of flavonoids contained within it. 

“However, our research shows that champagne, which lacks flavonoids, is also capable of influencing brain function through the actions of smaller phenolic compounds, previously thought to lack biological activity. …

The paper is published in Antioxidants and Redox Signalling.

I have a very clear “vision” of what Professor Spencer’s lab might look like. A lot more genteel than a pub or a bar — since it’s champagne! I don’t suppose Prof. Spencer has much difficulty in recruiting post-grads and post-docs (whose alcohol consumption capacity is legendary and insatiable). The Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences boasts that it has over 100 PhD and MPhil students!

We currently have over 100 PhD and MPhil students, who each belong to one or more of our 3 research groups:

  • Food and Bioprocessing Sciences
  • Food Microbial Sciences
  • Human Nutrition

Since 1998, we have enjoyed a 97-100% pass rate. Sponsorship comes from research councils, Government departments, the European Union, charities, industry, the Reading Endowment Trust Fund and overseas scholarships.

Note — a 97 – 100% pass rate!

The Keepers of Memory

July 28, 2010

Yesterday I met someone after 35 years.

The memories that were triggered were sharp and clear but we each remembered different episodes with differing degrees of clarity. Many memories that surged to the surface were matters that I had not consciously thought of during the 35 year interval.

Why then are some memories stored in the brain with – apparently – no deterioration and a mass or surrounding detail and others are only vague recollections or even non-existent?

Perhaps the answer lies in the protein kinase PKMzeta. In The Beautiful Brain PodcastTodd Sacktor, Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology at SUNY talks about his research regarding the mechanisms of long-term memory storage—and deletion— in the brain.


Sacktor’s research investigates the activity of a class of proteins which are very active around synapses— the protein kinases –  and they come in several varieties in the brain. They catalyze chemical reactions at the synapse, allowing a neuron to become more or less responsive to the electrical firing of its neighbor by aiding reactions that reshuffle neurotransmitter receptors.

Sacktor has identified one kinase in particular—called PKMzeta—which seems to be directly responsible for the maintenance of memory in the brain. When PKMzeta is found at a synapse, the memory encoded there is OK—it’s being maintained. When PKMzeta stops working at a synapse, the memory floats into the abyss of the brain, disassembled into its consituent cellular parts and extinguished from our recollection. In this edition of the podcast, Sacktor discusses his research and its implications on the way we understand memory storage in the brain.

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