Seeds of Memory

by Tony Moore 

“When you’re a neuroscientist and you tell people that you study memory, everybody is interested, because everybody has a memory,” Associate Professor of Psychology Teresa Barber begins, explaining a summer-research project she is conducting with students on the effects of certain natural substances on regaining memory. 

Folk cures and supplements

On the elevator ride to the lower level of James Hall in the Rector Science Complex, Barber explains that the seeds of the project sprouted from a mix of healthy scientific curiosity and nagging doubt surrounding the growing wave of herbal remedies pitched as memory aids. “There are all these folk cures, and some newer ones you’ll see in nutrition stores,” she says. “If you have Alzheimer’s, you can take a couple of different drugs that can improve your memory, but I was a real cynic about [the efficacy of] any kind of herbal supplement.” 

Tellingly, she used the word was.

So a few years ago, when one of Barber’s former students, neuroscience major Ashley Young ’07, wanted to test the practical applications of research, Barber saw a chance to challenge her own skepticism head-on. “I suggested to Ashley that we study gingko, which you hear so much about—it improves memory, is natural, etc. I didn’t think it would work, but … it did,” she says with a smile that reveals her lingering surprise. 

Cumin and interns meet in the lab

“Friends and family always ask me, ‘Is there something I can take [to improve memory]? Something that isn’t pharmaceutical grade?’ ” Pharmaceutical grade or not, what matters to Barber in the end is if the substance works, whether it grows in your backyard or is mass-produced in a factory. 

So with the results in on gingko, Barber and two rising seniors, Justin Williams and Ari Brouwer, set out this summer to test another natural substance: cumin, the dried seed of an herb in the parsley family. They have been assisted by rising first-year students Kimani Keaton and Briana Brown, participants in STEP, the National Science Foundation's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program. 

Scopolamine and the unpalatable beads

In her white lab coat, Barber stands in the sauna-like room where the experiment primarily takes place and explains the process. “We present the animals with a little bead, and they peck at it. But it tastes bad, and they don’t like it and won’t peck it again.” This is the natural response to tasting something disagreeable, of course. But what if they can make the subjects—in this case, chicks—forget how bad the bead tastes? And can they make them remember again?

This is where Williams and Brouwer come in. The pair is involved with every step of the process, starting with administering and testing the effects of a drug called scopolamine, which mimics the memory-loss effects of Alzheimer’s in humans, and the cumin, which can perhaps reverse those effects.

“We wait four hours for the drug to take effect and then come back and see what kind of memory the animals have,” Williams explains. “Then we discuss the results with Professor Barber.”

“We found that if you give them scopolamine, they’ll peck the bead again [because they have forgotten how bad it tasted before],” Barber says. “Then we see if the cumin reverses the scopolamine amnesia or if, by itself, it improves memory in animals given just saline.”

Her students watch eagerly as she reveals what they have discovered. 

“Right now we have results that suggest that in dose response [the range within which the drug is effective], it does affect scopolamine amnesia but doesn’t improve memory by itself,” she explains. “So essentially, when your memory is intact, there’s not much you can do to improve it. But if your memory is impaired—by pathology or aging, perhaps—then the substance will help improve memory.”

With the cumin project winding down, Barber shakes her head a little at the idea that the end of the experiment brings real closure, and at the same time she sums up the scientific process nicely: “When we think we’ve answered the question at hand, that doesn’t mean there aren’t more questions!”

Published June 24, 2013