LEWISTON — What is your earliest memory? Are you sure that it’s accurate?

That’s how Dr. Andrew Kennedy kicked off the Great Falls Forum on Thursday — asking his audience to test their ability to retrieve a distant memory. Then, he explained how it works at the molecular level.

Kennedy, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bates College, said advances in neuroscience are making it possible for scientists to reorganize how our minds use the genes responsible for memory storage, maintenance and retrieval.

His lab at Bates is at the forefront of some of that work, which, while some years away, could eventually lead to advances in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions affecting memory.

Andrew Kennedy, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, gives a talk titled “Retooling the Genome to Treat Memory Loss” on Thursday at the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

During the hourlong forum at the Lewiston Public Library, Kennedy said the science of genetics has advanced immeasurably in the past 20 years, making his research on long-term memory possible.

When the first human genome was sequenced — it was completed in 2003 — it took 13 years and cost billions of dollars. Now, he said, scientists can sequence an individual genome in two weeks for $1,000.

It’s at the point now that scientists are researching “memory erasure” aimed at people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and other ways to alter genes associated with memory. With support from the National Institutes of Health, Kennedy’s research attempts to understand the chemical mechanisms that maintain long-term memory.

He said recent research at his lab involving mice has shown that when a certain gene, known as TET2, is removed (in neurons specific to memory), they are able to increase memory maintenance in the mice.

During multiple tests, the mice that had the gene removed were able to remember the location of certain items for a much longer time compared to mice that still had the gene.

“We think TET2 is important for forgetting,” he said. “When we knock it out, they still remember.”

The research is promising, but the method of knocking out specific genes has not been federally approved. He said the problem with removing a gene is it can’t be undone.

What’s better, he said, is to have a drug that “you can simply stop taking.” But, to get the research far enough along to create a drug available to humans, it could take more than a decade, and cost billions. That process, between his lab and several partners, is just beginning.

Kennedy said scientists don’t want to create a drug that would help the memory of students taking medical exams, but that the research could be used to treat Alzheimer’s or rare memory disorders such as Pitt Hopkins syndrome.

Kennedy has been one of a few scientists involved in research aimed at the rare genetic disorder, which affects long-term memory. He said the disorder affects memory so greatly that children with the syndrome can’t learn language.

According to his introduction at the forum, Kennedy teaches courses such as Mechanisms of Memory and Organic Chemistry at Bates College. He attended Providence College and earned his doctoral degree in drug discovery, also referred to as medicinal chemistry, at the University of Virginia. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in neurobiology at the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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