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Joe Z. Tsien, assistant professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, will speak on “Genetic Enhancement of Learning and Memory in Mice” at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, in the auditorium of Lafayette College’s William E. Simon Center for Economics and Business Administration.

Sponsored by psychology and biology departments, the neuroscience program, and the Values in Science/Technology (VAST) program, the talk is free and open to the public. For more information, call Matthew S. McGlone, assistant professor of psychology, (610) 330-5296.

Tsien headed the research team that received worldwide attention last fall when it genetically engineered “brainy mice,” pointing the way for research that could lead to human babies with higher IQs as well as drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. The scientists’ findings were published in the journal Nature.

At Lafayette, Tsien will discuss his exciting breakthroughs in the study of the NR2B gene in mice, a gene which is a key switch in a mouse’s ability to learn associations between events. Tsien bred a strain of transgenic mice (dubbed “Doogie Howsers”) with altered copies of the NR2B gene designed to increase in activity with age, thereby counteracting the declining activity of the natural gene. In several experiments, these transgenic mice have exhibited faster learning and longer-lasting memory than their normal counterparts and, as adults, their brains have retained natural abilities. Tsien’s findings have been the subject of scientific and media attention worldwide and suggest how scientists might use genetic technology to combat Alzheimer’s Dementia and other neural degenerative disorders in the future.

“This points to the possibility that enhancement of learning and memory or even IQ is feasible through genetic means, through genetic engineering,” Tsien said.

The researcher’s journeys are nearly as remarkable as his research. Tsien grew up in Wuxi, a small town near Shanghai, China, where he was the only person from his high school to enter college. After studying at East China Normal University in Shanghai, he decided to do doctoral studies in the United States. As The New York Times relates, “He chose the University of Minnesota because it offered to waive the application fee, which he could not afford, and because the Chinese characters for Minnesota translated invitingly to ‘clean air blue sky.'” Tsien’s Ph.D. thesis involved helping Lester Drewes conduct studies under a Defense Department grant on how the warfare chemical agent sarin blocks the transmission of nervous signals.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1990, Tsien was accepted as a postdoctoral student by Eric Kandel, a leading biologist at Columbia University. He worked on identifying genes active in rats’ brains during memory formation. Next came a stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he analyzed the function of a gene by removing it and studying the resulting defects in the mouse.

After the publishing of his research in 1996 and some conflicts with both of his mentors, Tsien set up his own laboratory the following year as an assistant professor at Princeton University. There he began to focus on improving memory in mice rather than damaging it. His manipulations enabled certain receptors in mice’s brain cells to stay open for 250 thousandths of a second rather than the normal 100 thousandths of a second.

That seemingly small change is the basis behind the superior learning skills of the rodents. The Associated Press reported, “The mice excelled in a range of tasks, like recognizing a Lego piece they’d encountered before, learning the location of a hidden underwater platform and recognizing cues that they were about to receive a mild shock. . . . The new mouse work represents a breakthrough in understanding how the brain functions at the molecular level, said Dr. Robert Malenka, a psychiatrist and behavioral sciences specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine. ‘To jump from this very elegant molecular work in a mouse model to humans is a very, very big jump,’ said Malenka. ‘Nevertheless, it is a jump we can make and will make eventually.'”

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