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Cover Story

September 3, 2007
Volume 85, Number 36
pp. 13-20

Hold That Thought

Slowly but surely, scientists are unveiling the complex chemical underpinnings of memory

Sophie L. Rovner

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you misplaced your car in a parking lot? Gave you a bit of a scare, didn't it? What about when you blanked on the name of a longtime friend—did you wonder if you were showing the first signs of Alzheimer's disease?

These are not trivial fears. Memory is as vital to your trip to the grocery store as it is to your role at work and to your very personality.

Courtesy of Nahum Sonenberg/McGill University
Memorable Mice McGill University's Mauro Costa-Mattioli holds mice that he genetically enhanced to have much better memories than regular mice.

To support these diverse responsibilities, memory is necessarily complex, and it has taken scientists more than a century to establish a basic understanding of its elaborate biochemical bases. Using isolated brain cells, brain scans, behavioral studies, pharmaceutical treatments, genetic engineering, and other tools, they have shown that memory is based on a series of biochemical events that induce changes in proteins in a network of the brain's neurons and that a lasting memory also requires structural changes in those neurons.

Researchers have discovered multiple genetic and pharmacological techniques to improve memory, an accomplishment that will no doubt capture the attention of an aging