Algernon

19 Jun

I was reading The New York Times’ obituary for Daniel Keyes, the author of Flowers for AlgernonHere is a trailer for one of the many productions based on the book:

 

In the Times obituary I came upon this passage:

“In 1999, 40 years after Mr. Keyes wrote “Flowers for Algernon,” he completed his memoir. He was celebrating with breakfast at a restaurant when he stumbled on an article on the front page of The New York Times that made him drop his fork. The headline read, “Smarter Mouse Is Created in Hope of Helping People.”

Mr. Keyes wrote in an afterword that he contacted Joe Z. Tsien, the neurobiologist who conducted the study, to ask how long it might take before such technology could be applied to human beings.

“After a long pause, Dr. Tsien said, ‘I expect it to happen in the next 30 years,’ ” he wrote.”

This led me to look up Tsien’s’1999 paper, “Genetic enhancement of learning and memory in mice,” published in the prestigious journal Nature. Here is the abstract:

“Hebb’s rule (1949) states that learning and memory are based on modifications of synaptic strength among neurons that are simultaneously active. This implies that enhanced synaptic coincidence detection would lead to better learning and memory. If the NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor, a synaptic coincidence detector1, 2, 3, 4, acts as a graded switch for memory formation, enhanced signal detection by NMDA receptors should enhance learning and memory. Here we show that overexpression of NMDA receptor 2B (NR2B) in the forebrains of transgenic mice leads to enhanced activation of NMDA receptors, facilitating synaptic potentiation in response to stimulation at 10–100 Hz. These mice exhibit superior ability in learning and memory in various behavioural tasks, showing that NR2B is critical in gating the age-dependent threshold for plasticity and memory formation. NMDA-receptor-dependent modifications of synaptic efficacy, therefore, represent a unifying mechanism for associative learning and memory. Our results suggest that genetic enhancement of mental and cognitive attributes such as intelligence and memory in mammals is feasible.”

And here is a video of Tsien discussing his work on habit formation:

 

 

 

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