On memory

My 4 year DPhil here at Oxford is funded by a studentship from the Wellcome Trust. This is a great thing because it means I have enough money to, for example, live, and it also means that any research groups I join will not have to pay for me. It’s even better than that, though, because I just found out that my studentship comes with a research grant that goes to any group(s) I join. So in effect, by taking me on, I would be giving them money!

As a result, I’ve already had group leaders sidling up to me and nonchalantly informing me of the highly interesting and vital research work that they are doing. It is pretty cool.

I’m not actually expected to join an existing research project though; I’ve been told that I can basically think of any project (within reason) that involves ion channels. This might seem a little restrictive, but you have to realise that every cell in every organism has ion channels and they’re essential for, well, every biological process. So recently I’ve been giving some thought to memory and cognition, and how it might be improved by drugs.

Recently a drug called modafinil (aka provigil) has been making headlines about how it can drastically boost concentration and wakefulness. All of this is true. Even better, modafinil doesn’t appear to have any real side-effects at all. Unsurprisingly, legions of Americans, very few of whom actually have sleep disorders (which is what the drug is supposed to be for), have been trying to get their hands on this wonder-drug.

Would they be worried, or at least surprised, if they knew that we have no idea how modafinil works? Probably not. But I’m quite interested. I’ve started reviewing the literature on modafinil and haven’t been able to find much addressing the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the drug’s action; sure, there have been plenty of clinical studies checking to see whether it works or not, and people have been looking quite hard to find any harmful side-effects – but this doesn’t tell us how it works.

Of course, there are some groups trying to figure out how it works, but mostly the progress they’ve made is finding out how it doesn’t work (it doesn’t seem to involve the dopamine system, for example). So I think this is an interesting area for research and could shed some light on how normal memory and cognition work. My worry, however, is that since modafinil appears to have such global effects on consciousness, it might be very difficult to work out how individual systems are being affected.

Luckily, I have about a year before I have to start the serious research component of my DPhil so I have plenty of time to make my mind up on a project.

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