NeuroNation \ Mind and Brain

Is your memory unreliable?

The human memory is notoriously fickle, especially when it comes to remembering details. Years of research has found that our brains tend to fill in the missing gaps with fiction or other memories when we cannot remember the specifics. In day-to-day life, this is not a bug, it’s actually a feature – we cannot possibly remember every single minute of every single day. But although our brains are sometimes not as reliable as we would like them to be, it could be much worse. Luckily science is constantly coming up with new findings that could improve the quality of our memories.

A recent study of 2,000 adults found that the average person forgets about four things a day — 1,460 things per year — and those are just the things they remember forgetting. This can be incredibly annoying, but we can improve our memories with cognitive training and brain games. What about those with diagnosed memory problems?

Sometimes we want to forget, but simply cannot

It can be incredibly difficult to recover from trauma or drug addiction, because there are so many emotions associated with these experiences. Even though former drug addicts may not have used for long periods of time, when the cravings hit they are often very powerful and hard to resist. The reason for this is the involvement of the amygdala in the formation of these memories. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing fear and other emotions.

Basically, a substance called actin helps the process of memory formation, which then breaks down after the job has been done. With emotions involving the amygdala (strong emotion), the actin continues to stay active, making it extremely difficult for these memories to fade from a person’s conscience. To help heal the wounds cause by trauma and drug addiction, Dr Courtney Miller of the Scripps Research Institute teamed up with scientists to arrest the activity of actin. With her research, hopefully viable solutions can be found to help treat persons recovering from PTSD and substance addiction.

A groundbreaking discovery

On the flipside, for years scientists have been trying to work out what causes amnesia. Amnesia is a condition characterised by poor memory, caused by trauma, brain injury or, more commonly, diseases like Alzheimer’s. To highlight the enormous impact of Alzheimer’s Disease, every 67 seconds a new patient in the US is diagnosed, and this number is expected to triple by 2050.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have just made a revolutionary discovery. For many years, no one could say whether amnesia was a problem due to memory storage, or memory recall. The latest findings from the lab proves it to be the latter [1]. In a series of experiments, researchers found that it was possible for mice to recall ‘lost’ memories with light therapy – where light activated specific nerve cells in the brain to prompt recall. This means the memories are still there, they just can’t be recalled! This finding could be the turning point to combat amnesia – potentially helping millions of patients around the globe who cannot rely on their memories.

We need to know more

Memory, like intelligence, is not straightforward. The human memory is powerful, yet complex, with a number different parts of the brain responsible for the storage and recall of our experiences and what we learn. Science has a long way to go, but promising developments are made each day, and more resources need to go to funding memory studies. Alzheimer’s affects 40% of persons aged over 85, yet there is only one dementia scientist for every six working on curing cancer in the UK, and there are more ongoing trials examining hay fever than dementia. The reason for this is that conditions of the brain are incredibly difficult to pinpoint and treat, but studies needs to focus on memory to help alleviate the huge economic and emotional burden which memory conditions pose on diagnosed persons, their family, and our economy.

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[1] Ryan, T., Dheeraj, R., Pignatelli, M., Arons, A., & Tonegawa, S. Engram cells retain memory under retrograde amnesia. Science, 29 May 2015: 1007-1013 DOI:10.1126/science.aaa5542

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