Toronto, ON – Scientists from the University of Toronto and the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital have discovered a molecular link between intelligence and curiosity, which may lead to the development of drugs to improve learning.
In a paper published September 10 in the highly-respected journal Neuron, Professor John Roder of U of T’s department of molecular genetics, a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld, and Bechara Saab, PhD candidate at the Lunenfeld, studied the interaction of two proteins in a small region of the brain called the dentate gyrus (one of three parts of the hippocampus, which plays an important role in long-term memory and spatial navigation).
“Dr Roder and Bechara Saab have made a discovery in a region of the brain that has been under-explored in the past,” said Dr Jim Woodgett, director of the Lunenfeld. “This molecular link holds promise for future cognitive therapies.”
For the study, the neuronal calcium sensor-1 (NCS-1), a protein which is known to affect the memory of worms and is linked to bipolar and schizophrenia in people, was increased by one-and-a-half fold specifically in the dentate gyrus of mouse models. This modest overexpression increased the ability of brain cells to change how they communicate with each other and gave the mice superior memory in complex tasks and a significant increase in exploratory behaviour (curiosity).
Because the exploratory behaviour was only altered in safe environments, the two researchers believe they have discovered a region of the brain that generates curiosity and a model for how brain activity leads to curiosity.
The researchers also discovered that both curiosity and spatial memory were impaired when a benign drug (developed at Mount Sinai) blocked the NCS-1 protein from binding to the dopamine type-2 receptors (a major target of anti-psychotics) in the dentate gyrus.
“Now that we know that some of the molecules and brain regions that control learning and memory also control curiosity, we can go back to the lab and design drugs that may improve cognition in humans – that’s the potential benefit for the future,” explained Saab. “Immediately, however, we can put into use the knowledge that fostering curiosity should also foster intelligence and vice versa.”
The study was in collaboration with other scientists from Toronto, and Switzerland.