ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A discovery about memory in rats could lead to better treatments for Alzheimer's disease. The finding involves a type of memory that is especially vulnerable to the disease. NPR's Jon Hamilton explains.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: It's called episodic memory, and Jonathon Crystal of Indiana University in Bloomington says it lets us review the events in our lives.
JONATHON CRYSTAL: Retrieving an episodic memory is about going back in time and recalling the specific event as it happened.
HAMILTON: But Crystal says people with Alzheimers often lose that ability.
CRYSTAL: So for example if somebody goes and visits his or her grandmother who's suffering from Alzheimer's, that grandmother isn't going to remember that you were visiting a couple of weeks ago and what you described about things that are going on in your life.
HAMILTON: Crystal and a team of researchers thought rats might have some version of episodic memory, so they've been testing the animal's ability to remember odors like basil and banana.
CRYSTAL: They need to keep track of the different odors and where they encountered them in the past.
HAMILTON: In the team's latest study which appears in the journal Current Biology, the rats sniff different combinations of voters in different places. Crystal says the question was whether the animals could remember smelling a specific combination in a specific place.
CRYSTAL: And what we find is that the rats are really adept at this. They remember well over 30 items in context.
HAMILTON: Which adds to the evidence that rats do have some form of episodic memory. Bruce Lamb of Indiana University in Indianapolis says the research could improve testing of experimental drugs for Alzheimer's. These drugs are usually tested in genetically modified mice, but Lamb says including rats in some drug studies might provide important new information.
BRUCE LAMB: We need to have a way to study the exact type of memory that we think is impaired in Alzheimer's disease and then be able to sort of say whether various interventions can improve that memory.
HAMILTON: Lamb says the research also could influence a government-funded effort to create better animal models of Alzheimer's. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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