This blog post is based on an article from our recent Research Newsletter. For more information about the Magnusson laboratory or other work at the Linus Pauling Institute, see the full version online.
My name is Kathy Magnusson. My laboratory has been an active part of the Oregon State University campus for the last 14 years – my home is Veterinary Medicine. I joined the Linus Pauling Institute in 2013, where I develop cognitive tests that measure brain function as we age.
My laboratory is particularly focused on finding ways to prevent (or perhaps, repair) age-related loss of memory or ability to learn. Since I am not as young as I used to be, so you could also say that I am hoping to figure out how to improve memory problems before I forget what I am researching!
Swim Test from Memory
Although most of our work is done on the molecular level – looking at the biochemical changes that underlies aging and memory problems. In particular, I focus on a complex of brain-specific proteins known as the NMDA receptor. Changes to the NMDA receptor affects both short- and long-term memory with age.
While there are many reasons a detailed analysis of the NMDA receptor is valuable, it is only one piece of a puzzle that can help us improve cognitive function. What we need to do is link biochemical changes in NMDA receptors to something functional – like a memory test.
We use cognitive function tests in rodents to get an idea of how certain areas of the brain are working (or not working). For memory tests, we take use trials designed for the animals to find food or to locate an object. For different aspects of memory (ones that involve learning where objects are in space), our laboratory utilizes the Morris Water Maze.
In short, this is swim test for mice mixed up with a memory game. For more details on how this works, see the full version of our LPI newsletter article (the link is below). The short version is that mice learn to do this task if their memory centers are functioning correctly.
In general animals look for a way to get out of the pool as efficiently as possible. Young animals adapt better when we change the conditions of the test on them. Old animals… not so much.
It’s Working… Virtually
Research in rodents is the foundation of much of the scientific work on memory. However, there is a big push to bring this work out of animals and into people. How else will we know if the treatments we test have any useful effect?
Although functional MRI (called fMRI) scans are useful at looking at how the brain works, they do have their limitations.
Therefore, we have been developing a ‘water maze’ for testing human volunteers. Unlike the rodent test, this is not performed in a real pool of water but in a virtual computer environment. Otherwise, this task is similar to the water maze task that we use in mice.
Our ‘virtual water maze’ seems to work very well in many respects (again, for more details see our full article from the LPI Research Newsletter) and we are excited to get it going. We are currently using this test in at least two studies of cognitive function at the Linus Pauling Institute. More should be coming soon.
In other words: watch this space. New ground in memory research will soon be coming.
See more about the Magnusson laboratory at our full newsletter article on our website, or subscribe to our biannual research newsletter.