Diving into Memory

The Magnusson Laboratory, featured in our Spring-Summer Research Newsletter

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.

Dr. Kathy Magnusson in the lab

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?

An MRI scan of a human brain – one of the tools to probe brain function

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.

Cancer prevention through nutrition: School gardens provide produce to at-risk families

With support from the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute Community Partnership Program, new initiatives from the Linus Pauling Institute’s Healthy Youth Program seek to make an impact on cancer rates in Oregon communities.

High school summer interns preparing herbs from the garden for recipe samples at the farm stand (Left to right: Alana Hilkey, Curtis Bradford, Nupoor Patil, Elena Cordes, Lauren Reichman, Natalie Walker, Annabelle Burright, and McKenna Mulvey)

School Garden Harvest Boxes, or Cajas de Cosecha, is designed to serve local families. In the true spirit of a community project, the Healthy Youth Program staff are collaborating with local youth, Oregon State University students, and various community members. Their goal is to provide produce from school gardens and local farms to families in need.

This partnership brings together resources from the Corvallis School District, the Benton County Health Department, and about a dozen local farms.

Focusing nutrition education around cancer prevention, the program encourages consumption of fresh produce. This often involves shifting community norms about what constitutes “good nutrition.”

Each week, selected families participate in a farm stand event located at their school garden where they choose fruit and vegetables for their Harvest Box. Here they also receive nutrition education materials that explain the health benefits of the foods they have chosen and have the option to have a nurse from the Linus Pauling Institute take weight and blood pressure measurements.

Ten high school interns serve as the backbone of the project. They provide the support necessary to make farm stand events more than a place to pick up groceries. Therefore, the Harvest Box Project serves a second purpose: to provide a work-and-learn experiential internship for high school students.

Harvest Box containing peppers, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, potatoes, salad greens, grapes and garlic.

At the farm stand, high school interns are running the show. Some of the students wash, prepare and set up baskets of produce. Others take to cooking and serving samples of the recipe of the week in an outdoor kitchen.

Additionally, interns engage children attending in educational activities, giving parents the time to select their weekly produce with fewer distractions.

Through these weekly farm stand events, the high school students learn about sustainable farming, food systems, and community nutrition.

Supervising the project is the manager of the Healthy Youth Program, Candace Russo. In addition to acting as a source of nutrition information, Russo administers the program surveys to parents to gather feedback. Ultimately, these surveys act as measures of the program’s success.

Preliminary results from the surveys indicate that changes are happening. Families are trying Harvest Boxes recipes at home. With fruit and vegetables readily accessible, the program seems to overcoming some barriers to increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

A rainbow of colors is represented in the produce from the farm stand each week.

Next summer, the Healthy Youth Program seeks to incorporate family cooking classes, and build recipes around specific fruits and vegetables with anti-cancer properties. They also hope to be able to package this program for use in other communities.

The Healthy Youth Program would like to thank the following local farms who have generously donated produce to the farm stand throughout the summer:

Kith and Kin Farm, Roundhouse Farm, Red Hat Melons, Camron Ridge Farm, Beene Family Farm, Kiger Island Farms, Fairfield Farms, Stahlbush Island Farms and Gathering Together Farm.

The Harvest Box Program will run into late September 2018. Results of the program will be featured in a future Monthly Update from the LPI. If you would like to get involved or provide financial support, please email the Healthy Youth Program at hyp@oregonstate.edu.


Millions of People with Metabolic Syndrome May Need More Vitamin E

Research Also Uncovers a New, Better Way to Test for Vitamin E

Almonds are a good source of vitamin E. Photo courtesy of healthaliciousness.com.

New research from Linus Pauling Institute Principal Investigator and Ava Helen Pauling Professor Maret Traber, Ph.D., has shown that people with metabolic syndrome need significantly more vitamin E – which could be a serious public health concern, in light of the millions of people who have this condition that’s often related to obesity. Continue reading Millions of People with Metabolic Syndrome May Need More Vitamin E

Linus Pauling Institute Director Steps Down, Reflects on the Evolving Field of Diet and Optimum Health


Nutrition’s legacy as a “soft science”

Nutrition has always been considered a “soft science”—a field rife with studies showing associations but no firm causation. Conclusive trials in humans are very difficult to do, and long-term studies assessing disease prevention are often cost prohibitive. In the past, the status quo was to do studies with laboratory animals to test whether a certain food or nutrient had an effect on cancer incidence or the hardening of arteries that can lead to heart disease or another such end point, but this approach lacked a critical element: the “why” was missing. “Something went in, something possibly resulted from it, but what happened in-between was largely a black box,” said Linus Pauling Institute Director and Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Balz Frei, PhD. “What was lacking was mechanisms.”

Continue reading Linus Pauling Institute Director Steps Down, Reflects on the Evolving Field of Diet and Optimum Health