Researchers at West Virginia University's Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute have learned that when a gene regulating long-term memory is knocked out of operation in mice, they can retain information for much longer than normal.

The long-term memory gene may have implications for memory loss and progressive conditions like Alzheimer's disease, said Dr. Daniel L. Alkon, the institute's scientific director.

"If we have an understanding of how the molecular events are critical ... it will help us design drugs," Alkon said. "The earlier we can bring drugs to a person with Alzheimer's, the better. ... If you can stop that degeneration or slow it down early you have a much better chance to help them."

The gene appears to inhibit learning, said Dr. Robert D'Alessandri, vice president of WVU health sciences and interim director, chief executive officer and president of the institute. It may also have more than one function.

"It may be a protective mechanism," D'Alessandri said. "You don't want to remember everything forever, right? The brain is all about balancing one thing with another — learning versus filling your head with stuff and not being able to do anything with it."

Alkon and Dr. Dong-Ping Tan co-authored an article in the March 28 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.