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Mollie Meffert

In addition to illuminating the basic science of memory, might your research have medical relevance?

MEFFERT: NF-kappaB is a ubiquitous transcription factor involved in a range of processes, in addition to learning and memory. It is a potent transcription factor in the immune system. Mice that are deficient in NF-kappaB are immunocompromised.

There is also evidence that dysregulation of NF-kappaB is involved in neurodegenerative disorders and cancer. One of NF-kappaB’s functions appears to be promoting growth, so dysregulated NF-kappaB could lead to uncontrolled growth.

Some pharmaceutical companies are developing inhibitors to NF-kappaB that could be used as cancer therapies. Our research, which involves understanding how NF-kappaB works under normal physiological conditions, could provide valuable information for those efforts. One outcome might be to help show how you might use those drugs safely without causing cognitive problems.

Might there be a way to enhance memory by boosting the level or activity of NF-kappaB, through some sort of “smart drug,” for instance?

MEFFERT: Whether enhancing NF-kappaB activity would enhance your cognitive performance is unclear. It might, or it might simply add more noise to the system. It’s hard to say. There are serious risks involved since  increasing NF-kappaB activity could also lead to unrestricted cell growth, which could lead to cancer.

How reductionist can we be when we talk about a memory? Is a memory a gene? A neuron? A synapse? A series of neurons?

MEFFERT: Forming a memory is believed to involve regulation of the expression of many genes by diverse mechanisms in networks of synapses, neurons and brain regions. Experimentally, we can acquire a better understanding by addressing questions at multiple levels of complexity.

It seems that studying memory, like studying consciousness, could boggle the mind, so to speak. You’re engaged in the very act that you are investigating. Does that thought ever occur to you?

MEFFERT: This could be one reason that the study of learning and memory has captured the interest of many scientists.

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