February 25, 2014. Working memory allows us to keep multiple things in mind that we need while performing a task, such as remembering a phone number long enough to make a call. This kind of temporary repository helps us through all sorts of tasks during the day, but problems with working memory affect many people with schizophrenia. A new study published in Neuron on February 13 links working memory to genes encoding molecular parts of a neuron important for processing the information it receives.
Led by Andreas Papassotiropoulos at the University of Basel, Switzerland, the study surveyed the genomes of healthy people to find those places in the DNA related to working memory. These implicated many different genes, but the researchers found that a subset of genes that are blueprints for molecules called ion channels were especially tied to working memory in different study groups, including one for schizophrenia. These ion channels control the passage of calcium, potassium, and sodium into and out of neurons, which regulates how well a neuron can sustain the electrical activity in the brain that mediates working memory. There would be many hurdles to overcome, but scientists suggest that drugs targeting these ion channels may shift neural activity into a zone more beneficial for working memory, perhaps providing a remedy for the working memory impairments of schizophrenia. (For more details, see the related news story.)—Michele Solis.