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.
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.”
“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