The frustration of losing your car keys or not remembering where you put your glasses could soon be nothing more than a distant… erm, memory.
Scientists have worked out why we forget where we’ve put things – and shown that an inexpensive pill used for years to treat high blood pressure in the U.S. can boost memory.
In future, everyone could take guanfacine or a similar drug from middle age to keep ‘senior moments’ at bay.
This would make remembering PIN numbers and phone numbers a breeze and mean you need never hunt frantically for your car keys again. On a more serious note, keeping memory sharp would make it easier for people to continue in demanding careers and maintain their independence as they age.
The researchers, from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, made the discovery by giving monkeys a memory test akin to the human problem of finding car keys. The primates had a computer game in which they had to find a hidden treat.
Young animals could hold the treat’s location in mind for up to five seconds. But aged animals remembered the information for only half that time. Working memory – or retaining information such as car key locations or phone numbers – relies on connections between clumps of brain cells in an area called the pre-frontal cortex.
The connections allow the cells to ‘talk’ to each other, enabling one to fire up another and keeping memories strong.
In the ageing monkeys, the connections were weaker and the brain cells fired less often.
But giving them guanfacine significantly speeded up the process, making it more akin to that in young animals.
Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers said that certain chemicals build up in the ageing brain and penetrate the cells, depleting memory. Guanfacine stops them from building up.
Experts at Yale have already started testing guanfacine on healthy men and women to see if it stops memory lapses.
Professor Amy Arnsten, who spearheaded the monkey study and receives royalties on another version of the drug, said that in future people could take guanfacine, or a similar drug, from middle age to keep their memory sharp in later years.
Such a treatment would be aimed at absent-mindedness and is unlikely to help halt the march of Alzheimer’s disease.
But keeping the brain healthy may help stave off the development of the disease.