Tragedies like the untimely death of Robin Williams are sad reminders of the intricacy of the human brain, and how much there is still to learn. But breakthrough research—like a recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience—give us hope that, in the famous words of Williams' beloved Ms. Doubtfire, “help is on the way.”
Scientists at Dartmouth College recently began investigating an understudied part of the brain called the retrosplenial cortex that controls the mind's memory regarding “where”, such as where you parked your car, where you were on September 11th, and where you met your spouse.
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“The retrosplenial cortex is an area that we know little about other than it is highly susceptible to Alzheimer's disease,” says David Bucci, Ph.D., the lead study author and professor of psychological and brain sciences.
But in his study, using newly developed technology created by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Bucci and his team surgically implanted a synthetic gene into rats' brains and then later injected the rats' stomachs with a drug to activate this infused gene. This gave them total control to remotely turn on or off this contextual memory function for a short period of up to two hours. By manipulating this section of the brain, researchers were able to observe and analyze, for the first time, why that part of the brain is relevant and what role in plays in life and overall health.
“Our study didn't set out to solve any health problems just yet,” Bucci says. But knowledge is power. “If your car breaks down, knowing how your car works improves your odds of being readily able to fix it. The same is true for the brain. If we can learn more about how it works, then when it breaks down, we know what's going on.” He hopes the next step will be studying the retrosplenial cortex's communication and connection to the rest of the mind's complicated internal network. “We have no idea whether we'll be able to put these fake genes into humans in the future—can't see too many people signing up for this—but maybe if it's going to help find a cure for Alzhiemer's...we'll see,” he says. It'll be a long time before Bucci's team will graduate to human trials, but in the meantime, they're hoping this revolutionary new study will pioneer further discoveries of the elusive brain.