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What we learn from flies: Studying the biological processes that allow our brains to remember provides hope for future development of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

Trinity College Dublin Assistant Professor in Physiology, Dr Tamara Boto, was co-author on a study that reviewed our understanding of gene expression changes due to memory consolidation. The study of the molecular processes that promote learning and memory is one of the most fascinating aspects in neuroscience and is key for understanding neurodegenerative pathologies like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Detecting the molecules involved in the persistence of memories is key for the design of future drugs and treatments. Dr Boto described the study:

In this paper we focused on the existing literature that explains how a neuron knows where new proteins are required and how they accumulate in these specific locations, leading to a more efficient communication between neurons. These studies highlight key biological processes that allow our brains to remember information many days (or even years) later.

Memories can last from seconds to a lifetime. We know that for those memories to last (to undergo ‘consolidation’) structural changes must occur in our brains. Some connections between neurons must become stronger and others weaker, and these changes in the network depend on new gene expression. New proteins are required at specific locations among the network of neurons that communicate to each other inside our brains, and Dr Boto’s manuscript reviews what we know so far regarding when and where new gene expression takes place in the brain of the fruit fly. Dr Boto described the importance of the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, in our understanding of memory:

Fruitflies have been pioneers in the study of gene regulation, much of what we know of genetics comes from the study of these small insects. They can also learn many different things and remember many days later, and the general rules that dictate how these new memories are integrated into the network are very similar to that of humans.

This work on memory is funded by grants from the Irish Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland, Wellcome Trust, and the National Institute of Mental Health, USA. This work was the product of interdisciplinary and international collaboration, including PhD candidate Camilla Roselli and Professor Mani Ramaswami (both of the School of Genetics and Microbiology, Trinity College Dublin) and Dr Isaac Cervantes-Sandoval (Georgetown University, Washington DC).

The full paper can be accessed here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2021.662129/full