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Stowers Institute Scientific director receives award for 'paradigm-shifting' work in memory research

Posted at 10:01 PM, Mar 07, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Mo — One of the area's top scientists received a coveted award for his "paradigm shifting" work to understand how our memory works and how that defines us.

“Memory defines who we are," said Kausik Si, the Stowers Institute scientific director and investigator. "I set out trying to understand one very simple thing; something that you learn when you are very young and remember it your entire life."

KSHB 41 first talked with Kausik Si about his work last year.

Si's research delves into what keeps memories alive and how disease can lead to memory loss.

All the studies are done using fruit flies.

He works to understand how some memories stay with us for the rest of our lives and other memories disappear.

Si said fruit flies have strong memory components, so he’s been looking into individual cells and proteins with the hope that understanding those parts can help us understand more about the human brain.

"The reason I am hopeful is that people are also focusing equally as intensely on this side, the good side of how we make a memory," he said. “The chance of making progress gets better and better and better. That’s why I am eternally hopeful. What else do we have but hope?”

What his research needs now is a big funding push.

Kausik said as humans live longer and memory diseases are more prevalent, there’s a push to look anew at Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases.

His award-winning work is progressing and people with influence are taking notice, among them, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.

Their foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, honored his research with an award that elevated his work with grant money for his continued 'unorthodox” findings.'

Si said the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is looking for new ideas in the area of Neurodegenerative diseases.

“The heart of the problem is something that happens all over the body, like everything else goes into the body, to make a memory you need to engage a molecule called proteins," he said. "There are millions of different types of proteins. A group of these proteins are very important for animals to make a stable memory. What we wanted to know is how the protein that will make memories disappear, and what will make memories that stick around."

He hopes his research can provide solutions.

“The solution to the problem, till now, is when most proteins in the body disappear, there are kinds of memories in the brains that clump and some of those clumps look like when the brain has some of those diseases that we are very familiar with; Alzheimer, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s,” he said.

Si sees there are two different kinds of clumps.

“Both can clump, they look similar, but in one case, when they clump there are all of these memory problems and the other, when the protein clumps, it actually makes up lasting memories,” he said. “So this is the heart of our study. What we are trying to understand is why one clump can keep memory and the other can destroy memory.”

He told KSHB 41 reporter Megan Abundis how he plans to continue his work by looking at manipulating memories by changing the stability or the duration of them.

“It’s a bit bold, the idea itself is somewhat new, so I think that’s why they liked it," he said. That we are proposing to do something that both technologically and conceptually is different from what traditionally people have been doing."

He believes the recognition he's received allows more people to be interested and help solve the problem of memory diseases.

“What we want to test is different types of memories; memories that stay with you for a couple of day or memories for years,” he said. “With that, sometimes you have good memories, sometimes you have bad memories. What we are trying to see, this phenomenon we discovered, this protein when it clumps it creates a type of memory. If we change the nature of the clump can we make memory last longer or can we make memory disappear?”

Work that can’t be done other than at The Stowers Institute, according to Si.

“One of the things we have proposed to do through this award grant, we are going to take advantage of this recent explosion in AI,” he said. “Looking at how the protein takes one specific shape, how it clumps, using AI, you can go through this entire experiment in a day when it would take us years and years.”