November 22, 2017

Can memory loss be cured? Penn researchers' brain map has some answers

Data reveals how memories are made – and how they could be restored

Psychology Research
022317_brain_memory AnsonLu/iStock photo

We all have memories we’d like to savor (or forget), and though they’re caused by, say, an embarrassing moment on a date or hysterical joke with your family, how do they manage to actually stick in our brains?

New research from the University of Pennsylvania dives into that question. Researchers have recently completed a map of the entire brain’s electrical connections, which are vital in memory formation.

It’s not always simple to garner data about the brain’s connectivity, as many researchers try noninvasive practices like MRI scans to gather information. For this research, approximately 300 neurosurgical patients had electrodes implanted directly on their brains, thus giving scientists an inside look at how brain waves best process memories.

After years of gathering data, the team found that, to make new memories, two things are necessary: regions of the brain must process a stimulus – the cause of the memory – and then communicate with each other at a low frequency.

“Low frequency” in this case means that brain waves are moving up and down slowly, thus driving communication between the brain’s frontal, temporal, and medial temporal lobes – all of which are the most important parts of the brain for processing memories.

With this knowledge, it may be easier for medical professionals to help improve individuals’ memory capacity.

“We’re now prepared to ask whether we can use measures of functional connectivity to guide our choice of which brain region to target with electrical stimulation,” Michael Kahana, a researcher on the project and psychology professor at Penn, said in a statement. Kahana also is the principal investigator of Penn’s Restoring Active Memory project (RAM), which this recent work supports.

RAM recently released intracranial brain data showing, for the first time, that electrical stimulation could improve memory function when memory was predicted to fail.

Eventually, researchers hope these discoveries can help treat patients with memory disorders such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease, but there is still much more work to do before that can happen. Next, Penn researchers plan to assess the interaction between brain stimulation and function connections.

Take a look at the full report published in Nature Communications