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Brain receptors TRPV1 (transient receptor potential vanilloid subtype) have been known to affect sensations of pain and respond not only to heat, but also to capsaicin–the ingredient that gives chili peppers their spicy kick. Until now no one had linked TRPV1 to memory.

Julie Kauer, professor of medical science, Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Brown University, and her co-researchers, treated rat brain tissue from the hippocampus area–the central region of the brain’s learning and memory center–with capsaicin. The researchers found that the capsaicin alone activated TRPV1 channels, which triggered long-term depression in the brain tissue; rats that lacked TRPV1 receptors and treated with capsaicin did not have the same long-term depression.

The researchers point out the potential for new drugs that could prevent memory loss. The study also shows raises the possibility for potential side effects of drugs currently being developed to pain control. Drugs aimed at reducing pain and inflammation by either blocking or activating TRPV1 are in the research pipeline, which means that these drugs may have some unexpected psychiatric side effects.