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Faculty

Researchers discover the key to long-term memory

Professor John Lisman '66

After a 30-year quest, a Brandeis professor has discovered the molecule that stores long-term memories — it's called calcium/calmodulin dependent protein kinase, or CaMKII for short. The results were published on September 27 in the online edition of Neuron.

The breakthrough was achieved by the lab of John Lisman '66, the Zalman Abraham Kekst Chair in Neuroscience. The paper's first author is Tom Rossetti, a former graduate student of Lisman's now at the Weill Cornell Medicine Graduate School of Medical Sciences.

The discovery of the memory molecule resolves one of the oldest mysteries in neuroscience — how do our brains create and retain long-term memories? The finding also opens up radically new avenues of brain research. One day, by targeting CaMKII, we may be able to erase the memories that underlie trauma or drug addiction. Though it would raise serious ethical issues, it might also allow us to change our pasts by wiping out recollections of unhappy experiences.

CaMKII has also been found to play a role in Alzheimer's disease. It's never been clear if the illness deletes long-term memories or if they remain present, yet inaccessible to recall. A better understanding of CaMKII might resolve this.

"Just like it's unimaginable that we could understand cells if we didn't understand DNA, it's unimaginable that you can understand memory if you don't know what molecule stores it," Lisman says.

Read more about this breakthrough.

Date: September 27, 2017