A protein that can switch shapes and accumulate inside brain cells helps fruit flies form and retrieve memories, a new study finds.
Such shape-shifting is the hallmark move of prions — proteins that can alternate between two forms and aggregate under certain conditions. In fruit flies’ brain cells, clumps of the prionlike protein called Orb2 stores long-lasting memories, report scientists from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo. Figuring out how the brain forms and calls up memories may ultimately help scientists devise ways to restore that process in people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The new finding, described online November 3 in Current Biology, is “absolutely superb,” says neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia University. “It fills in a lot of missing pieces.”
People possess a version of the Orb2 protein called CPEB, a commonality that suggests memory might work in a similar way in people, Kandel says. It’s not yet known whether people rely on the prion to store long-term memories. “We can’t be sure, but it’s very suggestive,” Kandel says.
When neuroscientist Kausik Si and colleagues used a genetic trick to inactivate Orb2 protein, male flies were worse at remembering rejection. These lovesick males continued to woo a nonreceptive female long past when they should have learned that courtship was futile. In different tests, these flies also had trouble remembering that a certain odor was tied to food.