FROM THE MOMENT we are born, our brains are bombarded by an immense amount of information about ourselves and the world around us. So, how do we hold on to everything we’ve learned and experienced? Memories.
Humans retain different types of memories for different lengths of time. Short-term memories last seconds to hours, while long-term memories last for years. We also have a working memory, which lets us keep something in our minds for a limited time by repeating it. Whenever you say a phone number to yourself over and over to remember it, you’re using your working memory.
How memories are formed, stored, and recalled
Since the 1940s scientists have surmised that memories are held within groups of neurons, or nerve cells, called cell assemblies. Those interconnected cells fire as a group in response to a specific stimulus, whether it’s your friend’s face or the smell of freshly baked bread. The more the neurons fire together, the more the cells’ interconnections strengthen. That way, when a future stimulus triggers the cells, it’s more likely that the whole assembly fires. The nerves’ collective activity transcribes what we experience as a memory. Scientists are still working through the details of how it works.
For a short-term memory to become a long-term memory, it must be strengthened for long-term storage, a process called memory consolidation. Consolidation is thought to take place by several processes. One, called long-term potentiation, consists of individual nerves modifying themselves to grow and talk to their neighboring nerves differently. That remodeling alters the nerves’ connections in the long term, which stabilizes the memory. All animals that have long-term memories use this same basic cellular machinery; scientists worked out the details of long-term potentiation by studying California sea slugs. However, not all long-term memories necessarily have to start as short-term memories.
As we recall a memory, many parts of our brain rapidly talk to each other, including regions in the brain’s cortex that do high-level information processing, regions that handle our senses’ raw inputs, and a region called the medial temporal lobe that seems to help coordinate the process. One recent study found that at the moment when patients recalled newly formed memories, ripples of nerve activity in the medial temporal lobe synced up with ripples in the brain’s cortex.
Many mysteries of memory remain. How precisely are memories encoded within groups of neurons? How widely distributed in the brain are the cells that encode a given memory? How does our brain activity correspond to how we experience memories? These active areas of research may one day provide new insight into brain function and how to treat memory-related conditions.
For instance, recent work has demonstrated that some memories must be “reconsolidated” each time they’re recalled. If so, the act of remembering something makes that memory temporarily malleable—letting it be strengthened, weakened, or otherwise altered. Memories may be more easily targeted by medications during reconsolidation, which could help treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Source: National Geographic