In mice, a small region of the hippocampus known as CA2 (green) is essential for social memory, the ability of an animal to recognize another of the same species. (Credit: Steven Siegelbaum, Columbia University Medical Center)
The human brain, just a 3-pound mass of tissue, has the ability to remember a lifetime of experiences. Our short-term, or working, memory serves as a kind of mental workspace, transiently retaining new information that helps guides our thoughts and actions. Long-term memories, which are retained indefinitely, can be implicit, or unconscious, such as some motor skills that have been learned over time. They can also be explicit, meaning that retrieving stored information about people, places and things requires conscious effort.
Some of the central questions in memory research include: How and where do we make new memories? How are they sustained for long periods of time? How are memories stored and retrieved? What can be done to prevent memory loss? And can our memories be manipulated? Scientists such as Eric Kandel, Kavli Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University, have pieced together many of the chemical and structural changes in brain cells as different types of memories are encoded and retained, and have also identified many of the proteins involved. And very new research in mice suggests that false memories can be created artificially, raising hope that new treatments will be developed to help individuals with traumatic memories and other memory-related disorders.
New findings reveal memory networks more intricate than previously believed. Understanding these pathways may help develop ways to enhance learning, mitigate memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s or guard against memory loss from aging.
Recent research is beginning to answer these fundamental questions by exploring the plasticity of the adult brain—its ability to readily be shaped by experience. Contrary to the common assumption that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, there is increasingly strong evidence that the adult human brain is remarkably malleable and capable of new feats even in the last decades of life.
Kavli Institute directors Edvard and May-Britt Moser have just established the Norwegian Brain Centre at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. WIth its opening, the Centre becomes one of the largest of its kind worldwide.
Armed with new imaging methods such as two-photon microscopy, Tobias Bonhoeffer, director of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsreid, Germany, is a leading researcher on how the brain adapts to its environment.
Whether engaged in a chess game or something less obvious, the brain is constantly thinking. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge, admits that a game of chess is an excellent demonstration of the brain at work.
Among the vast store of memories we carry around in our heads, there is a large and crucial collection of maps. Most of these have little to do with geography in the usual sense; they’re more like road maps to our everyday surroundings.