Uruguayan Scientist Wins International Neurobiology Prize

By Dialogo
November 17, 2008

*Mauro Costa-Mattioli recognized for studies of how memories are formed* Washington — Mauro Costa-Mattioli, a scientist from Uruguay now working in the United States, has won the 2008 Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology for identifying a protein that controls the formation of long-lasting memories. Modifications of the protein determine whether short-term memories, lasting minutes to hours, become long-term memories, lasting days, weeks or years. “This is certainly one of the first steps to one day being able to help those suffering from age-related memory loss, or even the more devastating memory loss caused by Alzheimer's disease,” Costa-Mattioli said. "It is imperative to understand how the brain's basic molecular processes function to generate corresponding insights in cognitive disorders." The prize recognizes outstanding neurobiological research by a young scientist performed within the last three years. The winner receives $25,000. Costa-Mattioli brings “an enthusiasm and courageous ‘big question' approach to the biology of memory that has already caught the attention of students and many other faculty in our program,” said Michael J. Friedlander, chair of the department of neuroscience at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where Costa-Mattioli is an assistant professor. AN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION For Costa-Mattioli, the road from Uruguay to the United States spans two continents and several countries. It is “very difficult to pursue a career in science in Uruguay,” Costa-Mattioli told America.gov, so after receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of the Republic in Montevideo, he left for France, where he received a master's degree from Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, and a doctorate from the University of Nantes. In 2002, he joined the laboratory of Nahum Sonenberg at McGill University in Montreal, to study the role of protein production in learning and memory. “He is one of the most insightful and thoughtful scientists whom I have ever encountered,” Sonenberg said. “He possesses unimaginable energy — we would sometimes talk and e-mail each other even after midnight. And then he was early in the lab the next morning. All in all, he is an extraordinary and remarkable young scientist.” Attracted to the “heady” intellectual environment and “great culture of collaboration” at Baylor, Costa-Mattioli joined the faculty of the Baylor College of Medicine in the summer of 2008. MEMORABLE PROTEINS For more than 20 years scientists have known that forming long-lasting memories requires cells in the brain to make new proteins. Animals treated with drugs that block protein production fail to form long-term memories, but their short-term memory remains intact. While working in Sonenberg's laboratory, Costa-Mattioli discovered how protein production is turned on to form long-term memories. The key lies in a protein, called eIF2a, which promotes general protein production. When a small phosphate molecule is attached to eIF2a, general protein production is diminished. Phosphates constantly are added to or removed from eIF2a, depending on how much protein the brain needs to make. Costa-Mattioli took genetically engineered mice that contain one normal copy of eIF2a and a second, mutated copy to which a phosphate cannot attach. Compared to normal mice, spatial learning and memory were enhanced in the mutant mice, whose brains otherwise appeared normal. On the other end of the phosphate study results, administering a drug that prevents phosphate from being removed from eIF2a in normal mice impaired long-term memory. The status of eIF2a — whether a phosphate is attached or not — could be altered in diseases affecting long-term memory. A 2007 study from scientists at Seoul National University in South Korea found that a mutation that causes Alzheimer's disease increased levels of the “phosphated” form of eIF2a in cultured cells, in mice and in human brains. So far, this is only a correlation. Scientists have not shown that abnormal eIF2a activity causes memory loss. Costa-Mattioli's prize-winning work could be used to develop a memory-enhancing drug, one that mimics or increases amounts of un-phosphated eIF2a. The Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology is awarded annually by Eppendorf AG, a biotechnology company headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, and Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. The 2008 finalists were Dr. Hendrikje Nienborg, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, and Claudio Hetz, an assistant professor at the University of Chile in Santiago and an adjunct professor at Harvard University. The winner and finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November in Washington. For more information on the Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology, see the prize Web site. For more information on the laboratory of Mauro Costa-Mattioli, see his faculty Web site at the Baylor College of Medicine.