Science Questions

How are memories stored?

Sun, 23rd Sep 2012

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Question

Cristina de Rossi asked:

As a teacher I would like children to understand how learning happens (the biological basis) I've been fascinated to grasp the physical manifestation (as my education focused on neurotransmission) of learning as actual formation of connections between neurones (in real time) tell me a little more. is there evidence for extracellular memory - proteins produced outside neurones in contrast to intracellular communication described earlier in the CSN.

 

Roddy

 

Answer

Ginny -   Memory is a really interesting area because it isnít just one distinct thing.  We have lots of different types of memory.  So, a distinction that most people probably know about is short term versus long term memory.  So, your short term memory allows you to remember around 7 things for a short time.  Say, you look up a phone number, you're trying to remember it.  You'll tend to repeat it to yourself and this is actually how the brain works for your short term memory.  Itís basically repeating the thing over and over again, so I'm sure everyoneís had the experience of looking up a mobile number, getting distracted, and completely forgetting it, and having to look it up again.  And thatís because your short term memory can only store these things as itís repeating it to itself basically.

Chris -   But what's actually happening when I'm going from that repetition where I know I know it and donít Ė whatever you do, say any numbers while I'm trying to remember the phone number because they will interfere - between that and then I know itís in my brain and I can call it up whenever I want to.  What's actually physically happening?

Ginny -   So, thatís the change from short term memory to long term memory and that involves an area of the brain called the hippocampus which consolidates your memories and takes them from the short term memory to the long term memory, and thatís generally done by repetition.  We think that basically, you're forming new synaptic connections.  So, you're actually connecting new cells in your brain and the more times you go over this same piece of information, the stronger that connection becomes, and the more likely it is to be stored permanently.  And it actually links with what we were talking about earlier when we were talking about reconsolidation.  So you can only reconsolidate a memory once itís being consolidated for the first time.  And the more times you reconsolidate it, the stronger it becomes if itís the same memory, and thatís how you can influence it if you change it to that.

Chris -   So practice does make perfect.

Ginny -   Exactly.  Itís all about repetition, repetition, repetition.

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