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Making Memories

Total Recall Pill

Treatments for Mental Retardation?

The potential of drugs that target CREB and other elements of the brain's biochemical pathways extends far beyond treating memory disorders of older adults. Could various forms of mental retardation, such as Down syndrome, be at least partially treatable? Both Kandel and Tully say yes.

"When we looked at the brains of kids with Down syndrome who died within their first year or two of life, we found to our surprise that their brains were surprisingly normal at birth. Not completely, but surprisingly close, during the first six months," Kandel says. "So it looks like the [abnormal genes that cause Down syndrome produce] their toxic effects [over] time."

He's now testing that theory in mice, trying to determine what happens if one particular gene involved in Down syndrome is turned off and no longer functions. The science is in its early stages, but he believes that blocking that gene's signals, while it won't offer a "cure," might be able to significantly reduce the damage to a person's thinking abilities. "And if you give people with Down syndrome even a somewhat better outlook, you improve life for them a great deal," he says.

Tully agrees. "There are specific [genes], known to participate in the [formation] of memory, that are defective in patients with some forms of mental retardation. Because we've developed drugs that target these genes, we may be able to treat some forms of mental retardation That's absolutely revolutionary, and it's just the beginning."

Originally published aug. 5, 2002.


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