The scientists caution that use of the compound, a small molecule known as a sonic hedgehog pathway agonist, has not been proven safe to try in people with Down syndrome, but say their experiments hold promise for developing drugs like it.

"Most people with Down syndrome have a cerebellum that's about 60 percent of the normal size," says Roger Reeves, Ph.D., a professor in the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "We treated the Down syndrome-like mice with a compound we thought might normalize the cerebellum's growth, and it worked beautifully. What we didn't expect were the effects on learning and memory, which are generally controlled by the hippocampus, not the cerebellum."

Reeves has devoted his career to studying Down syndrome, a condition that occurs when people have three, rather than the usual two, copies of chromosome 21. As a result of this "trisomy," people with Down syndrome have extra copies of the more than 300 genes housed on that chromosome, which leads to intellectual disabilities, distinctive facial features and sometimes heart problems and other health effects. Since the condition involves so many genes, developing treatments for it is a formidable challenge, Reeves says.