Working memory allows us to keep multiple things in mind that we need while performing a task. This kind of temporary repository helps us through all sorts of tasks during the day; deficits in this capacity have been linked to many psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia. A new study published in Neuron on February 13th reveals new insights about the biology underlying these deficits.
Researchers, including 2010 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee, Patrick F. Sullivan, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, surveyed the genomes of 2,824 healthy people, in early and late life, to identify those places in the DNA related to working memory. They also analyzed the genomes of a large “control” sample of 32,143 people with schizophrenia.
Many different genes were found to be associated with working memory, but the research team found that a subset of genes that are blueprints for molecules called ion channels, and that were related to neuronal “excitability,” were especially linked to working memory across ages and in schizophrenia. (Neuronal excitability determines how well a neuron can sustain electrical activity to regulate behavior and cognition.) Through functional imaging, they were also able to identify the brain regions linked to this subset of genes and to working-memory related activity.
There would be many hurdles to overcome, but scientists suggest that with these new insights, medications may be able to be developed to target these ion channels to improve the working memory impairments of schizophrenia.