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New clues link genomic origins of memory impairment

MANHASSET, N.Y., Dec. 2, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- For the first time, scientists have linked memory impairment in mammals with the expression of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) within an organism's genome. The research, conducted at The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

ERVs are viral genomic elements that are present in the native DNA sequence of every mammalian organism, including mice and humans. Once thought insignificant, recent research suggests that ERVs may impact health and disease. For instance, ERV activation occurs during hereditary human neurodegenerative syndromes, such as multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Moreover, the findings hint that ERVs are recognized by an organism's antiviral immune defense. In humans, ERV activation has been observed in immunological conditions, including HIV, autoimmune disorders, and anti-tumor immunity in cancer. 

These latest ERV findings are the culmination of graduate studies conducted by Roman Sankowski, MD, PhD, who, with colleagues, used mice to show that ERV activation has a direct impact on memory encoding within the hippocampus – a part of the brain that plays an important role in the acquisition of new memories, especially those involved in spatial navigation.

"This is the first time scientists have shown a clear connection between ERV and memory disruption in mammals," said Yousef Al-Abed, PhD, Dr. Sankowski's mentor, the Director of the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine, and co-author on the paper. "We now better appreciate the molecular basis of cognitive decline."

"This is a surprising new chapter on the interactions between the genome and memory encoding and a completely novel area of investigation in neuroscience," added Patricio T. Huerta, PhD, who also acted as Sankowski's mentor and co-authored the paper.

"With these findings, Dr. Al-Abed and his team progress research so that we are closer to understanding cognitive decline," said Kevin Tracey, MD, CEO and president of the Feinstein Institutes. "These new insights might even lead to future therapies for the most debilitating brain conditions."

This PNAS paper, titled "Endogenous retroviruses are associated with hippocampus-based memory impairment," is a collaboration between the Feinstein Institutes and the University of Freiburg in Germany. Dr. Sankowski received his PhD from the Elmezzi Graduate School of Medicine, with support from the Hearst Foundation, and under the guidance of Drs. Al-Abed and Huerta.

About the Feinstein Institutes
The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research is the research arm of Northwell Health, the largest health care provider and private employer in New York. Home to 50 research labs, 2,500 clinical research studies and 4,000 researchers and staff, the Feinstein Institutes is raising the standard of medical innovation through its five institutes of behavioral science, bioelectronic medicine, cancer, health innovations and outcomes, and molecular medicine. We're making breakthroughs in genetics, oncology, brain research, mental health, autoimmunity, and bioelectronic medicine – a new field of science that has the potential to revolutionize medicine. For more information about how we're producing knowledge to cure disease, visit


Matthew Libassi


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SOURCE The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research