New discoveries

Experts from Chilean universities find new component in the formation of memories

The scientific findings have wide-ranging implications for treatments of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 Category: Business - Technology
Neurons might not be the only ones responsible for the formation of memory. (Image by Benedict Campb Neurons might not be the only ones responsible for the formation of memory. (Image by Benedict Campbell/Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk)

A collaborative research project led by experts from the Universidad Andrés Bello, Universidad Católica, Universidad del Desarrollo and the Instituto Milenio, plus two Belgian institutions, recently proved that astrocyte cells play a crucial role in the formation of memories.


The finding gives doctors a new target for medication to combat neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.


Astrocyte cells account for 85 percent of cells in the brain and until recently, they were considered to be the "assistants" to neurons, since they were in charge of collecting the waste produced by the sinapsis used to speed up the neuron's reuse.


But scientists have now discovered that these "assistants" play a more important role than was previously thought.


Understanding memory is still one of the greatest challenges in science. In recent years, no one doubted the role that neurons played in the formation of cerebral networks. A few years ago however, the scientific world turned to the study of astrocytes with more attention.


Despite the fact that astrocytes are abundant, studying them was always complicated by the lack of tools used to isolate their function in the neurological connections as well the fragile nature of the cells themselves.  


Jimmy Stehberg, manager of the Neurobiological Lab in the Universidad Andrés Bello explains that in conjunction with other investigators, they were able to create a compound that blocks a specific astrocyte connecting channel, one that the experts assumed was involved in the process of the formation of memory.


In order to prove their theory they applied electric shocks to a group of mice in conjunction with a specific sound. Then, they injected the compound into the mice's brains.


The mice that had the compound injected into them did not show any physical or cerebral reactions, while the ones who hadn't received the injection showed signs of stress.


With this, scientists demonstrated that blocking this channel in the astrocyte also blocks the process of the consolidation of memory. This proves that memory does not only depend upon neurons, but that it also needs the astrocytes, to be able to consolidate short-term memories.


The discovery could position the astrocyte as a focal point of investigation for neurological and psychiatric science, and although it does not promise a complete explanation for memory problems, evidence points to the fact of it becoming an important component in understanding post-traumatic stress disorder and neurodegenerative illnesses.