Bursts Of Light Create Memories, Then Take Them Away
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Scientists in California appear to have answered a fundamental question about memories. They've found compelling new evidence that memories are created by strengthening the connections between certain brain cells. This finding in rats should lead to a better understanding of human memory problems, from Alzheimer's to post-traumatic stress disorder. Here's NPR's John Hamilton.
JOHN HAMILTON, BYLINE: You can't just open up a living brain and see the memories inside. So Roberto Malinow, a brain scientist at the University of California San Diego, has spent many years trying to find other ways to understand how memories are made and lost.
ROBERTO MALINOW: People have wanted to know, what is it that changes when you learn something? And why do you lose memories? And why do you sometimes have memories that persist too long - like post-traumatic stress disorder?
HAMILTON: Malinow and a team of researchers thought they might be able to answer some of those questions by performing a high-tech variation on a classic memory experiment. In the old version, he says, a rodent learns to associate a particular sound with a mild electric shock.
MALINOW: If you play the tone, the animal freezes. And why does it freeze? Because it's expecting the shock. So essentially, a memory has been formed.
HAMILTON: Scientists have long suspected that the animal's brain creates this memory by strengthening connections between cells that process sounds and cells that process fear. The theory holds that the memory will remain until something weakens those connections, which are known as synapses.
So Malinow decided to use a cutting-edge technology called optogenetics to test this idea. The approach uses light to stimulate specific groups of brain cells. And Malinow says one great advantage of it is that it can be used to study the brains of animals as they go about their daily life.
MALINOW: Optogenetics has absolutely changed neuroscience. It allows you to really decipher circuits in a way that was not possible before.
HAMILTON: First Malinow's team used optogenetics to stimulate particular groups of cells in the rat's brain. This created a fear memory, much like the one produced by playing sounds and giving shocks. Then, Malinow says, they set out to test the theory that strengthening specific synapses is what makes the memory stick.
MALINOW: If that's true, then we should be able to remove the memory by weakening those synapses.
HAMILTON: So they did weaken them, again using optogenetics. And sure enough, the rat stopped being fearful. When the scientists re-strengthed the connections, the rat's fear came back. Malinow says manipulating the memory became like a game.
MALINOW: Take it away. Bring it back. Take it away.
HAMILTON: He says the experiment offers the best evidence yet that it's the connections between brain cells that make memories possible. Josh Johansen, who studies memory at the Riken Brain Science Institute in Japan, agrees. He says earlier efforts to understand the role of synapses relied on detecting changes in brain tissue that had been removed from an animal.
JOSH JOHANSEN: Here they can essentially do that in the awake, behaving brain. And see these changes in connectivity and see changes in behavior. And I think that's an important advance.
HAMILTON: Johansen also thinks the research suggests new ways to help people with PTSD. Current treatments generally try to lessen a person's response to sights or sounds that bring back a frightening memory. But Johansson says the scientists in California appear to have done much more than that.
JOHANSEN: What they're doing is potentially reversing these processes which produce the fear memory to begin with. They may be erasing them.
HAMILTON: Johansen says the success in rats suggests it may be possible to get rid of disabling fear memories in people, too. The new research appears in the journal Nature. John Hamilton, NPR News.
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