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Master protein boosts learning & memory

The skills involved in running a marathon and memorizing a history lesson may seem miles apart. Not so says a new study. Researchers at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies have said that both running and cramming rely on a single metabolic protein called estrogen-related receptor gamma (ERRγ), which controls the flow of blood and nutrients throughout the body.

Published in the journal Cell Metabolism, this new study may open new approaches to dealing with regenerative, learning and memory issues. Both running and memorizing are strenuous activities, one physical, the other mental and, therefore, as Ronald Evans, director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory, says: “It’s all about getting energy flowing to the right places. For physical exercise the heart and muscles need a surge of energy and to form new memories the neurons need a surge of energy.”

And the scientists have discovered that regardless of whether the energy is needed for a physical or mental workout, it is controlled by a single protein called — ERRγ. Although previous studies had shown that ERRγ was active in the brain, it was not clear why because the brain burns sugar and ERRγ was earlier to only burn fat. So the team decided to drill deeper.

A close look at isolated neurons told, Liming Pei, lead and co-corresponding author of the paper, that as it does in muscle, ERRγ also activates innumerable metabolic genes in the brain cells. And surprisingly this activation is related to sugar not fat. In other words, neurons that lack ERRγ cannot ramp up energy production therefore perform poorly. Concludes Evans based on the study: “ERRγ, turns on fat-burning pathways in muscles and sugar-burning pathways in the brain.”

“We found in our experiments that mice without ERRγ are very slow learners,” says Pei. “The fact that some of us are able to learn and memorize faster than others may all be down to varying levels of ERRγ.” Better understanding of metabolism of neurons could pave the way to improved treatments for learning and attention disorders. And possibly, revving up levels of ERRγ could even enhance learning, just as it enhances muscle function.

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