Researchers discover new drug-target for learning disabilities

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The most common cause of learning disabilities, neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), may soon be corrected by medicine. Researchers have discovered some clues of how NF1 disrupts working memory which can lead to a new treatment drug.

Researchers at UCLA, (University of California, Los Angeles), published this study in the July 12 online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The target is called GABA, a neurotransmitter. Nf1 is caused by mutation of the gene neurofibromin (Nf1) that makes the protein of the same name. The study showed that the Nf1 protein is responsible for controlling GABA, which regulates brain activity.

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Working memory is the ability to keep information in the “mind’s eye” while working on it, such as adding up a total amount of groceries in a shopping cart. Those lacking this ability in any degree are shown to have learning disabilities that impact them in very real world ways, not just in the education arena; although, it is while in school those children with learning disabilities are usually identified.

Researchers discovered those with Nf1 mutations carry higher levels of GABA in the brain, which indicated that excess GABA inhibits brain activity by interfering with the communication between brain cells. Study co-author Carrie Bearden, associate professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, says, “We focused on a region of the prefrontal cortex that is critical for working memory in mice and compared it to its equivalent region in humans. When NF1 patients performed tasks that required working memory, they displayed reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex. The results were very similar to what we discovered in our mouse model.”

The authors are now looking to see if the drug lovastatin can have an impact on learning and health issues for NF1 patients.

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