Memory loss from sleep deprivation can be restored with medications for asthma, pulmonary disease, and erectile dysfunction, according to new research from the University of Groningen.

As a PhD student, Dr. Robbert Havekes observed that a lack of sleep could majorly impact the memory processes of the human brain. His early work helped illuminate some of the molecular mechanisms behind this type of amnesia.

“By manipulating these pathways specifically in the hippocampus, we have been able to make memory processes resilient to the negative impact of sleep deprivation,” Dr. Havekes said in a press release.

Whereas his earlier studies enhanced the brain’s resiliency to sleep deprivation, current experiments show that they can successfully retrieve memories lost while sleep-deprived days after training and sleep deprivation. Memories thought to be erased were found to be “hidden” thus difficult to recuperate.

The new studies, the results of which are set to be presented by the FENS Forum, indicate that “amnesia could be reversed even days after the initial learning event and period of sleep deprivation.”

“We could do so by activating the original memory and then applying the drugs,” Dr. Havekes told Interesting Engineering.

Studying spatial and social memory in mice
First, researchers gave mice the choice between interacting with a new mouse or a familiar one. Normally, the mice preferred to spend time with a new mouse rather than one they knew. However, when sleep-deprived, they exhibited no recollection that they had met the new mouse.

Furthermore, sleep deprivation inhibited their access to spatial memories. They couldn’t retain that they had learned that an object had moved.

“The key question,” according to Dr. Havekes, “was why they failed to do so: was there no information stored in the brain following the learning experience and sleep deprivation, or was that information in the brain, but the mice couldn’t properly recall it? It was the latter,” they found.

They could make the information accessible again with a combination of optogenetic engram technology and prescription medications hence why they termed them “hidden memories”

Medications already available can treat memory loss from lack of sleep
First, optogenetic engram technology, as a technique, marries optics and genetics. “By expressing the light-sensitive protein pump channelrhodopsin in this subset of neurons, we can activate them by shining light on them,” Dr. Havekes told Interesting Engineering.

“As a result, animals will recall the information related to the learning experience.”

Roflumilast, an anti-inflammatory drug used in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease retrieved social memories. Similarly, researchers treated spatial memory loss with Vardenafil, albeit another drug, currently used for erectile dysfunction. These findings provide a stepping stone, according to the press release, for studies to reach human trials.

“We have been able to show that sleep deprivation leads to amnesia in the case of specific spatial and social recognition memories,” Dr Havekes said. And they proved that they can reverse memory loss days after sleep deprivation with drugs that are already FDA-approved for human use.

“There are many situations where people cannot get the amount of sleep they need, so this area of research has obvious potential. However, it will take time and a lot more work to move this research from mice into humans,” FENS representatives concluded.

Researchers want to turn their attention now to the mechanisms that govern these processes, so they can get to human trials with the hope of alleviating those forgetfulness impacts by reopening these channels in the brain.


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