August 17, 2015

What ‘brainy mice’ can tell us about dementia and PTSD

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(August 17, 2015)  UBC scientists have created unusually intelligent mice by causing a mutation to a single gene. While the research is a long way from reaching human trials, it helps researchers identify a target for improving memory and cognitive function in people with dementia.

The study, led by Dr. Alexander McGirr, a medical resident in the Department of Psychiatry at UBC, along with colleagues at the University of Toronto, University of Leeds and MRC Harwell, an organization that studies the links between genetics and disease, was published today in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. In this Q&A, McGirr talks about his results.

How did you create intelligent mice?

We identified a mutation in the gene that codes for an important protein in the brain, Phosphodiesterase-4B (PDE4B). Though our study is in mice, this protein is very important in the human brain as well.

Mice with the mutation performed remarkably well on many memory and problem-solving tasks. For instance, they were able to remember where they had already been in a maze, find a platform hidden under water, and they had better social memory, meaning they remembered meeting other mice. What was really interesting is that even when we made some tasks that are impossible for normal mice, the ‘brainy mice’ continued to perform well.

What can intelligent mice teach us about dementia?

Understanding the function of PDE4B teaches us about how the brain encodes experience into memory. Cognitive impairment is a major clinical challenge and our work suggests a new target for medicines that may eventually help patients and their families.

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