The latest issue of Eureka, the Times’s monthly science supplement, is out today. I’ve been incredibly supportive of the venture and it’s great to see that a major national newspaper is increasing its science coverage, rather than cutting back on it. For this issue (the fourth, I think), I’ve written a piece on fear and memory, including a lot of research that I’ve previously covered in this blog.
While writing the piece, I interviewed a scientist called Todd Sacktor who’s doing some fascinating work in this field. Sacktor discovered that a protein called PKMzeta is vital for storing memory. Remove it, and memories are deleted, seemingly irreversibly. I’m printing the full transcript of the interview here, as a sort of companion piece to the Eureka feature. Think of it like one of the extras on a DVD.
These are the sorts of services that I think modern journalists can provide for their readers, to expand the boundaries of an article well beyond the first capital and the final fullstop. It won’t work in every case and time is obviously a factor, but there are exceptions when a scientist will be so eloquent and enthusiastic that it would be a crime not to print all of their words. There’s plenty of golden material here that didn’t make it to the final piece because of word limits or because it didn’t fit in the narrative. Here, you’ll hopefully get a fuller picture of PKMzeta. And for non-journalists, it might be interesting to see where I’ve pulled out quotes for the actual piece.
When people think about memory, they often think of discrete things like files on a computer that can be stored or lost. How do such metaphors stand now?
We think memories are stored by the action of PKMzeta at specific synapses. So the commonplace notion of files on a computer hard disk isn’t that far from the truth now. In a sense, it’s actually closer than the old neuroscientific explanation – that you have the growth of new synapses that, once grown, simply connect networks of neurons more strongly. It’s a bit like branches of a tree getting thicker or denser and that’s the memory – they are are now stronger because of these new physical connections.
But a computer hard disk, the structure is there. The hard disk has a certain size and certain places for the zeroes and ones, but you can store different information in the pattern of zeroes and ones. PKMzeta shows that it’s kind of a mix between these two notions. PKMzeta turns up at specific synapses after you learn something. The unique properties of this enzyme allow it to be active all the time (which is really unusual) and active at specific synapses, doubling the strength of those connections rather than their number. A synapse with PKMzeta is twice as strong as it otherwise would be.