As we age it seems natural that our memory starts to get a little foggy at times. Something as simple as where the house keys are or more serious such as the cheque book can result in a furious search of the house and endless frustration. For some this may signal the onset of Alzheimers or other forms of dementia, but for others it is nothing so serious, but still begins to disrupt our daily lives. Now, however, researchers have found a possible solution to those who start to suffer memory loss but don’t have dementia.
Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered a potential drug therapy that can reverse this type of declining memory. Although the drug is not yet ready to be used on humans, initial test results have been promising. Short term memory, or working memory, is responsible for holding information for a short period of time. The university has found that working memory is reliant on a balance of chemicals in the brain, and this balance changes in older adults causing a decline in working memory. It is thought that this is caused by the brain producing too much of a certain chemical that slows down neural activity. The researchers are looking at specific compounds that can reverse this chemical imbalance and return working memory to its prior level of functioning. Findings suggest that the cells that normally inhibit neural activity (GABA) are working at a significantly faster rate in the prefrontal cortex in older adults. In turn, this causes the decline in working memory. Although GABA inhibits neural activity it is essential for the functioning of working memory and enables us to make quick calculations and multitask. However, an increase in GABA can cause significant problems.
Researchers employed the classic ‘Skinner box’ method to test working memory in rats. In the Skinner box rats had to remember the location of a lever for periods of up to 30 seconds. Both young and old rats had no problem in finding the lever, but as the duration of time required to remember the location lengthened the older rats became progressively worse at the task. Interestingly, just as not all older adult humans develop memory decline neither do all adult rats. The researchers deduced from the actions of the rats that in the older ones who had no memory problems it was possible that they were able to produce fewer GABA receptors and thereby reduce the inhibitors in working memory, returning the chemical balance onto a more even footing. The older rats who did display memory problems in the box had more GABA receptors. When researchers used drugs to block GABA receptors in older rats their working memory improved to the same level of the younger rats. Although GABA transmitters are essential to higher level functioning an imbalance in them can cause numerous problems. It is hoped a suitable drug can be found to have the same effect on humans, reversing cognitive decline in the older generation.
Clearly the importance of this research is obvious. Anything that can help alleviate the sufferings that accompany old age, in whatever form, are welcome. Although most time and money focuses on the severe dementia diseases it is good to know that the more common and less severe problems are not being ignored. If the drug is successful on humans it will bring to an end the maddening frustration felt by those whose memory starts to fade, and the pain it brings to their families to see them suffer so.