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New Research Changes The Way We Understand Memory

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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Extraordinary new research has been conducted into how memories are made and stored.  The findings, which contradict what scientists have believed for decades about how memories are made, could help doctors treat those suffering from severe brain injuries.

The team of US and Japanese researchers found that the brain makes two memories of events[1].  Prior to this latest study, scientists believed that memories were formed in the hippocampus region of the brain and then moved to the cortex where they were stored long-term[2].

What the new research tells us about how memories are made and ‘banked’

Prior to the study, it was believed that the two main regions of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus and cortex, acted separately.  The scientific team at Riken-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics, where the study was undertaken, have shown that this is not the case.

To prove this, researchers gave mice an electric shock then watched as the memories related to the incident formed.  They then beamed light into the brains of the mice to control individual neurons, literally turning the memories on and off.  Their results, published in the journal Science[3], showed that memories were formed simultaneously in the hippocampus and the cortex.

The scientists found that if they switched off the memories contained in the hippocampus in the first few days after they are formed, the mice forgot about the shock.  However, they could tell the memory was sitting in the cortex at the time because when they ‘turned it on’ the mice retrieved a memory from this part of the brain.

The study suggests that the cortex memories are silent for several days after they are formed.

Furthermore, the research showed that if the path between the hippocampus and the cortex was blocked, the long-term memory never matured.

How brain injuries can affect memory

Understanding how memories are created and stored could dramatically affect the recovery of people who suffer a traumatic brain injury.  Memory impairment is a common side-effect of a traumatic brain injury, along with difficulties with cognition (thinking, memory, and reasoning), behaviour and mental health (depression, anxiety, personality changes, aggression, acting out, and social inappropriateness)[4].

One of the most famous cases of memory loss resulting from a brain injury was that of Henry Molaison, known by thousands of psychology students as "HM.”  A surgeon removed HM’s hippocampus to help the patient’s epilepsy.  HM’s s seizures reduced but he could no longer form new memories.  However, the ones he had before the operation remained.

HM lived in an extraordinary, sad world where he was forever stuck in the past.  He could not learn new words, form new ideas or benefit from fresh experiences.  He forgot who he was talking to as soon as they turned away; he could not even remember that he had just eaten a meal[5].

We can credit HM for helping with the discovery that the hippocampus was essential for making memories. Thanks to him, this vital part of the brain was never deliberately removed again for medical purposes.

The future?

This ground-breaking new study could help patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury to regain part or even all their memory.  More research needs to be done, but the fact scientists now have a more accurate picture of how memories are made and stored means they can move towards understanding how they can help people whose memory has been damaged.

IBB Claims is proud to continue its tradition of supporting Action for Brain Injury Week, which runs from 8th – 14th May 2017.  This year’s theme is “A New Me.”

At IBB, our personal injury team, led by accredited brain injury lawyer, Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury and wish to claim compensation for negligence. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at enquiries@ibbclaims.co.uk or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-39518580

[2] Ibid

[3] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6333/73

[4] http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/encyclopedia/en/article/338/

[5] Ibid

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