German scientists have developed a new nasal spray that promises to improve memory.
In a research report featured as the cover story of the Oct. 2009 issue of The FASEB Journal, scientists from the University of Lubeck demonstrate that administering a spray with a molecule from the body’s immune system — interleukin-6 — helps the brain retain emotional and procedural memories during REM sleep.
“Here, we provide the first evidence that the immunoregulatory signal interleukin-6 plays a beneficial role in sleep-dependent formation of long-term memory in humans,” said researcher Lisa Marshall, co-author of the study, in a statement.
Marshall and a team had 17 healthy young men spend two nights in the laboratory. Each night, after reading either an emotional or neutral short story, the men sprayed used a nasal spray which contained either interleukin-6 or a placebo fluid.
Marshall’s team monitored the men’s sleep and brain electric activity throughout the night. The next morning, subjects wrote down as many words as they could remember from each of the two stories.
Those who received the dose of IL-6 could remember more words.
“If a nasal spray can improve memory, perhaps we’re on our way to giving some folks a whiff of common sense, such as accepting the realities of evolution,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal, in a statement. “This is exciting piece of interdisciplinary science, since IL-6 had previously been considered a by-product of inflammation, not an agent that affects cognition.”
Intrigued, I called Weissmann at his home (he’s a professor emeritus at the School of Medicine at New York University) and asked him to elaborate on the significance of the findings.
This is a very exciting piece of work. We’ve known for a long time that when we’re infected and get sick, our bodies produce things called cytokines, which help people’s cells know that they’re sick. Some of them make us lose weight. Some of them give us fever. But nobody knew that these would have any effect on memory.
The idea that it could have cognitive effects is very novel. This is different. This improves memory during REM sleep, presumably by improving connections that form during sleep.
Your nose is an extension of your brain. Your nerve endings in your nose are directly connected to your brain, by one synapse. They can put this in without disruption — it’s the most direct way and it’s cleaner than the other way: rectally. There have to be cells in the brain that can detect IL-6. Substances can’t act unless they have something to act with.
We didn’t know that the response to infection or inflammation affects memory or sleep. That means simply, that if you had a bad dream, you’ll remember the pain you [may] have had. That fact is exciting.
It’s putting two great fields of medicine and science together. Cognition is the next frontier.
Everything that we thought was science fiction 10 years ago is considered passé and routine now. This lead is just the beginning. It’s really exciting work — that’s why we put it on the cover.
I also asked him about the ethical dilemma posed by boosting memory with a nasal spray.
People have been doing that with other agents all along. Caffeine does that. We take drugs that effect the brain all the time: we drink alcohol, we smoke, we smoke other drugs and we take coffee.
There’s another drug that affects cognition: it’s called the Palm Pilot. Take Benadryl — it makes you sleepy. So it’s nothing that isn’t already out there. The difference is that this happens during sleep.