The Key to Manipulating Memories

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UAB neurobiologist Farah Lubin, Ph.D., continues to remind scientists to keep an open mind about how the brain functions. She investigates the role of epigenetics—the regulation of genes by environmental factors, rather than by DNA—in the molecular events that lead to long-term memory formation and retrieval. “Epigenetics helps to bridge the two factors we know play a role in our behavior—our genetics and our environment,” Lubin says.

Like Taub, Lubin encountered resistance when she began her research. Scientists had accepted that epigenetic modification could occur during development, but the challenge for Lubin was to show that these mechanisms also occur in non-dividing, mature cells like neurons. Today, her groundbreaking research has convinced most investigators that epigenetics indeed influences the adult brain, allowing humans to adjust to and learn from new environmental situations. “Even in adulthood, you can still change,” Lubin says.

Exposure to new tasks in a social environment is extremely effective in reversing some of the behavioral and cognitive deficits associated with aging, epilepsy, and Alzheimer's disease.

Her lab now is looking for the exact epigenetic mechanisms that allow adults to retrieve old memories and make and store new ones. “Memory is basically who you are, and I think it’s very scary to people to think that they can lose their memory,” Lubin observes. Sometimes, though, the memory of a traumatic event is too much for a person to handle, and it can contribute to declines in physical and mental health. That is why Lubin also is investigating ways to manage epigenetics so that the process can suppress harmful memories.

While much of her research centers on pharmacological ways to manipulate memory, Lubin stresses that drugs are not the only—or necessarily the best—way to enhance neuroplasticity. According to research in her lab and others, mental enrichment, including exposure to new tasks in a social environment, is extremely effective in reversing some of the behavioral and cognitive deficits associated with aging, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike drugs, which often have side effects and target only one brain region or molecule, “enrichment seems to incorporate it all,” Lubin says. “I’m interested in this way that nature has given us to handle anything.”

Learn more about epigenetics in this UAB Magazine feature.

Next: Exercise and the birth of new neurons

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