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Making Memories

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Switching on a 'Memory Gene' continued...

Helicon Pharmaceuticals anticipates the first of its drug compounds aimed at stimulating CREB will be in early human testing before the end of the year.

Eric Kandel, MD, the Nobel laureate and memory pioneer who first discovered CREB, also believes that effective treatments for both Alzheimer's disease and age-related memory loss are in sight. But he suggests it will take between five and 10 years for researchers at Memory Pharmaceuticals, the company he founded, and other scientists to reach that goal.

He, too, believes that focusing on the genes and proteins involved in helping the brain form memories will yield unimaginable riches in terms of treatment for a variety of diseases. Research at his lab is now focused on a wide range of drugs that could act on CREB early in the memory formation process, he says. Memory Pharmaceuticals plans to start clinical trials on at least some of these drugs by the end of the year.

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.

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