An Important Advance In Understanding Memory

An Important Advance In Understanding Memory

This week The New England Journal of Medicine published an observation that dramatically illustrates that 
we live in the era when the mind may very well be figured out.

The observation had to do with memory.  Memory is one of those concepts that everyone knows about, but 
that we actually do not understand too well.

We all have learned facts that we can recall later in time, but just how does the brain take in that information, how does it get stored, and what allow us to retrieve the facts when we need them?

Researchers at UCLA and Tel Aviv University had the opportunity to stimulate a specific area of the brain and see what impact that had on the person's memory.  They were able to do this because one accepted treatment for very severe epilepsy is to thread a tiny wire deep into the brain to a spot where the seizures are generated, and then by running a very small electrical current, stop the seizures.

The researchers were able to place the wire at one spot in the brain of 7 adults who were going to have a wire placed for seizure control anyway.   The region of the brain is called the entorhinal cortex, which is the area around the yellow squares numbered 28 and 34 in this illustration from Wikipedia:

(this section of the post is rather technical, feel free to skip to the bold-faced heading for a summary of the discoveries)
Gray-Brodman-Entorhinal_Cortex_EC_.png (800×600)

The entorhinal cortex is the part of the brain that connects the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex.  That's important because we know that new stories and facts are converted into memory in a structure called the hippocampus and then these newly minted memories are placed into various parts of the brain.  The pre-frontal cortex is the area in the front of the brain that has much to do with consciousness- being aware of thoughts, conscious decision making, feelings.

As you might imagine, anything that connects being able to form new memories to the ability to think and feel would be central to memory function, and that is the case with the entorhinal cortex.

What They Found
So when the electrical stimulation was on, the 7 adults were able to solve challenging visual brain-teasers more quickly and using shorter routes.  The researchers also saw changes in the adults' EEG that showed a difference in the flow of electrical information from the nerves of the brain.
Interestingly, if electricity was applied to the actual seat of new memory formation, the hippocampus, memory was not improved for this task.

What it Means
Two items jump out from this work.

The first is that the door is opening on a world in which we can change the underlying abilities of our mind.
In this instance, a current applied changed a person's ability to solve complex visual puzzles, a clear instance of changing a person's power of memory.
Other work has demonstrated that the mind can change its power of working memory, and phoneme recognition.
As time goes on, more and more functions of the mind will be open to improvement, offering hope to some of the most heartbreaking challenges people face- impaired thinking.

The second is that our understanding of just how the mind works really is growing.  This study illustrates that increasing the activity of nerves in one area of the brain leads to improvement in one type of memory.  Such information allows us to begin to really understand how memory really works.  What physically must happen for a fact or story to get recorded in our mind and recalled whenever we want it?

Of course, our hope is that as our knowledge of how the brain grows, not only will we be in a better position to help those whose thinking is impaired, but we will be able to help our children learn more easily and more effectively.  Schools will one day be places of expertise in neuroscience where teaching is designed to help children form memories that allow them to achieve wonderful levels of ability across a range of fields.

As with all realms of scientific progress, attention to making sure this knowledge is used appropriately will need to grow with the knowledge itself.

Dr. Arthur Lavin

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