The Ascent of Mouse

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Build a better mousetrap and the world beats a path to your door. Build a better mouse and suddenly you're not worrying about putting the kids through Harvard. Or, in this case, Princeton, where a team of researchers have modified a single gene to produce smarter mice. According to a study to be published in Thursday's edition of Nature, mice whose brains were made to produce more of the protein NR2B became more adept at those traditional benchmarks of rodent intelligence, recognizing previously encountered Lego blocks and realizing when they are about to get an electric shock. The researchers essentially increased the ability of the mice to learn by strengthening the synaptic connections in their brains.

Which is all very well and good, but the question, as always in medical research, is what's in it for me, and when am I going to be able to order up smarter kids? Not right away. For one thing, there's a considerable difference between human and mouse brains, so developing any genetic therapy could take years. More important, learning and memory are influenced by a quite a few factors. While the Princeton research advances our understanding of the areas of the brain that help form "declarative" or conscious memories, there are other kinds of memory that are governed by different parts of the brain. The more likely applications, at least in the near future, are in therapies for degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's. For now, anyway, that's smart enough.