It seems that researchers from the University of Alabama have made a really NEAT discovery (excuse me, I had to say it). In their investigations of noncoding RNAs in the brain, they’ve come across a particular RNA that seems to play a significant role in memory, and in the impairment of memory in ageing.
To back up a bit, a noncoding RNA is a piece of RNA that never gets turned into proteins. When people talk about genes, they’re talking about things that get transcribed by RNA and then translated to become proteins, but RNAs are also capable of catalysing reactions and performing other functions in the cell. This is one of the reasons that some scientists suggest that RNA may have been the original vehicle for heredity, with the more stable DNA evolving later. Regardless, much of the genome that has been dismissed as “junk DNA” may actually code for RNA that takes on other roles in the cell.
In this particular case, the NEAT1 RNA is specifically expressed in the brain, and seems to inhibit memory formation. The team showed that it’s key in two ways (yay for testing both sides of it! good science) — they improved memory function in ageing mice by knocking out NEAT1 so it couldn’t inhibit the relevant gene, and they decreased memory function in young mice by increasing expression of NEAT1.
Of course, this is all IN MICE right now, but it’s a beautiful proof of concept that we may be able to use to treat memory issues in humans. Eventually.
It’s very, well… neat.