As reported in the New York Times, a new study has demonstrated an aspect of memory that has long been hypothesized. That being: the same neurons that fire during an experience fire during the memory of that experience. The research, published in the journal Science, relies on recordings from the brains of epileptic patients undergoing surgery to remove the parts of their brain which cause excesses of neuronal activity, essentially the only way to record the activity of neurons in awake human beings1.
The authors of the study took an approach where they recorded the activity of single hippocampal brain cells while subjects were watching a variety of video clips. Unsurprisingly, certain cells responded best to certain clips. Then, after a brief interim during which the experimenters distracted the patients, they asked the subjects to recall the video clips. Not only did the activity of the neurons during recollection correlate with activity during first viewing, the experimenters were able to predict which video clip the subjects were remembering based on the recorded activity! Interestingly, however, the hippocampus (the area of the brain being recorded from in this study) is not required for the recall of long term memories. Thus, in some ways this work further deepens the mystery of how short term versus long term memories are encoded in the brain and the involvement of hippocampus in these processes; a subject previously touched on in this forum.
Reading about this research reminded me of my favorite definition of memory, as the ability to:
“repeat a mental or physical act after some time despite a changing context…. We stress repetition after some time in this definition because it is the ability to re-create an act separated by a certain duration from the original signal set that is characteristic of memory. And in mentioning a changing context, we pay heed to a key property of memory in the brain: that it is, in some sense, a form of constructive recategorization during ongoing experience, rather than a precise replication of a previous sequence of events.
…the key conclusion is that whatever its form, memory itself is a [property of a system]. It cannot be equated exclusively with circuitry, with synaptic changes, with biochemistry, with value constraints, or with behavioral dynamics. Instead, it is the dynamic result of the interactions of all these factors acting together, serving to select an output that repeats a performance or an act.
The overall characteristics of a particular performance may be similar to previous performance, but the ensembles of neurons underlying any two similar performances at different times can be and usually are different. This property ensures that one can repeat the same act, despite remarkable changes in background and context, with ongoing experience.”2
1. Gelbard-Sagiv H, Mukamel R, Harel M, Malach R, Fried I (2008) Internally Generated Reactivation of Single Neurons in Human Hippocampus During Free Recall. Science 10.1126/science.1164685
2. Edelman GM, Tononi G (2000) A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, Basic Books, New York