Genome-wide search reveals new genes involved in long-term memory

Jan. 27, 2015

A recently published study in the journal Neuron has identified more than 750 genes involved in long-term memory, including many that had not been found previously and that could serve as targets for future research. The newly pinpointed genes are “turned on” by a molecule known as CREB (cAMP-response element-binding protein), a factor known to be required for long-term memory in many organisms, including worms and mice.

To identify the genes, the researchers first instilled long-term memories in the worms by training them to associate meal-time with a butterscotch smell. Trained worms were able to remember that the butterscotch smell means dinner for about 16 hours, a significant amount of time for the worm.

The researchers then scanned the genomes of both trained worms and non-trained worms, looking for genes turned on by CREB. The team detected 757 CREB-activated genes in the long-term memory-trained worms, and showed that these genes were turned on primarily in worm cells called the AIM interneurons.

They also found CREB-activated genes in non-trained worms, but the genes were not turned on in AIM interneurons and were not involved in long-term memory. CREB turns on genes involved in other biological functions such as growth, immune response, and metabolism. Throughout the worm, the researchers noted distinct non-memory (or “basal”) genes in addition to the memory-related genes.

The next step, according to researchers, is to find out what these newly recognized long-term memory genes do when they are activated by CREB. For example, the activated genes may strengthen connections between neurons. Future work will involve exploring CREB's role in long-term memory as well as reproduction in worms as they age.

Read a summary of the article on the Neuron website