Washington: Altering tiny amounts of a protein in specific parts of the brains of mammals can profoundly affect learning and memory, says a new study.

The protein, called kibra, was linked in previous studies in humans to memory and protection against late onset of Alzheimer's disease.

The new work researched in mice shows that kibra is an essential part of a complex of proteins that control the sculpting of brain circuitry, a process that encodes memory, the journal Neuron reports.

"There are populations of humans who are slightly smarter and have better memory recall than others, and these traits have been mapped to the gene that codes for the kibra protein," says Richard L. Huganir, professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University.

"Our studies in mice show that this same gene is involved in the operation of synapses, through which neurons (brain cells) communicate, and in brain plasticity, suggesting that's what its role might be in humans too," Huganir said, according to a Johns Hopkins statement.

In their lab, Huganir and neuroscience graduate student Lauren Makuch isolated kibra from mouse brain cells and confirmed by standard tests that it interacted with a neurotransmitter receptor in the brain known as the AMPA receptor.

The work shows how the addition of AMPA receptors to synapses serves to strengthen connections in the brain, Huganir says.

Without kibra, this process doesn't function properly - as a result, learning and memory are impaired.

(Agencies)