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Researchers may have discovered how memories are encoded in the brain

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March 21, 2012

Scientists have developed a theory regarding how the brain stores memories (Photo via Shut...

Scientists have developed a theory regarding how the brain stores memories (Photo via Shutterstock)

While it’s generally accepted that memories are stored somewhere, somehow in our brains, the exact process has never been entirely understood. Strengthened synaptic connections between neurons definitely have something to do with it, although the synaptic membranes involved are constantly degrading and being replaced – this seems to be somewhat at odds with the fact that some memories can last for a person’s lifetime. Now, a team of scientists believe that they may have figured out what’s going on. Their findings could have huge implications for the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Leading the study is Prof. Jack Tuszynski, a physicist from the University of Alberta. Also taking part are his graduate student Travis Craddock, and the University of Arizona’s Prof. Stuart Hameroff.

The project was inspired by an outside research paper, that described experiments in which memories were successfully erased from animals’ brains. That study concluded that a specific protein (calcium-calmodulin dependent kinase complex II, or CaMKII) played a large role in the encoding and erasing of memories, by strengthening or eliminating neural connections.

Tuszynski and his colleagues noted that the geometry of the CaMKII molecule was very similar to that of tubulin protein compounds. These tubulins are contained within microtubule protein structures, which in turn occupy the interiors of the brain’s neurons. They are particularly concentrated in the neurons’ axons and dendrites, which are active in the memory process.

The scientists wanted to understand the interaction between CaMKII, tubulin and microtubules, so based on 3D atomic-resolution structural data for all three protein molecules, they developed highly-accurate computer models. What they discovered was that the spatial dimensions and geometry of the CaMKII and microtubule molecules allow them to fit together. Furthermore, according to the models, the microtubules and CaMKII molecules are capable of electrostatically attracting one another, so that a binding process can occur between them.

This process takes place within the neurons, after they have been synaptically connected, to (in some cases) permanently store memories.

“This could open up amazing new possibilities of dealing with memory loss problems, interfacing our brains with hybrid devices to augment and 'refresh' our memories,” said Tuszynski. “More importantly, it could lead to new therapeutic and preventive ways of dealing with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia, whose incidence is growing very rapidly these days.”

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.

Source: University of Alberta

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
9 Comments

Well, this is some of the most amazing science news I have read recently. I wonder how many people grasp the enormity of this if it is true.

chards
21st March, 2012 @ 03:02 pm PDT

Maybe one day we will be able to take a pill or injection before scanning the textbook the night before the exam, to memorize the whole thing.

Calvin k
21st March, 2012 @ 08:51 pm PDT

1. This article says nothing about how CaMKII/tubulin interactions help form memories and the whole Alzheimer’s therapy thing is 99% speculation and total bs.

2. If this was big news, it wouldn’t be published in PloS, it would be in a more prestigious journal like nature or something

Ben Murphy-Baum
21st March, 2012 @ 11:31 pm PDT

Not to be pessimestic, but now it will be possible for some unscrupulous person/gov/agency to litterally wipe your memory; until now only the possibility of sci-fi thrillers. Disabling dissidents, etc without having to kill them. Just leaving them a functioning adult body with a mind like a newborn baby.

Jim Bentz
22nd March, 2012 @ 12:18 pm PDT

I thought there was a kind of redundancy to store memories in our brain. And the ones that lasts forever was those with higher number of instances.

Adilson Adeodato Azevedo
22nd March, 2012 @ 07:42 pm PDT

@Jim Bentz,

Yeah, but there are also diaries, blogs, and many ways to store our memory, people would start suspecting if their memories would start erasing, a goverment tool of that magnitude which could erase with ASTOUNDING PRECISION, and not make any mistakes, would be a tremendously difficult act.

Adrian Calderon
23rd March, 2012 @ 08:22 am PDT

@Adrian- regrettably, the difficulty, and probably total pointlessness of attempting such a thing will in no way deter ANY government (or "an unidentified rogue agency") from attempting just that

Thierry M Phillips
23rd March, 2012 @ 02:19 pm PDT

1. Anyone that has watched someone they love and/or respect have their mental faculties slowly deteriorate from dementia in any form must welcome this. Yes, it is a baby step. Yes, it might even be just a coincidence or a bi-product of some step in the process of memory formation. It is a new avenue of research. As Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." so is research. The answer is down one of the alleys. Until we find the answer, we must check each alley because if it was on the nice wide highway of most research we would have found the answer or at least most of the answer long ago. Right now we have no idea.

2. As to the idea of being able to completely wipe a person's memories, for the liberals I think with proper controls, that might be something they might like to see. You could get rid of prisons except in the case of absolute cases of nature controlling a persons actions. (It would definitely finally answer the question of Nature vs Nurture vs BOTH). If they learn to control it, you can actually give to many the blessing of innocence again. I can see the fears of learning how to wipe a person memory being discovered with learning how to keep their memories or at least slow deterioration.

3. If they can learn how to record memories and then share them they could make the legal system almost perfect. The only exceptions would where a person committed a crime and were unable to form a memory about it. In all other cases the juries could actually see what happened. This is far in the future and is probably too complex anytime before teleporters and colonization at least of our area of the galaxy.

4. Creating memories, could again be a blessing. Imagine a child is molested, now they are scarred for life. Remove the old memory and create a new one. The child is pure as the driven snow again. No need for therapy that may or may not help. This would happen about the same time as point 3.

5. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) publications are considered reputable. As of 2009, all articles undergo peer review before being included. Further if you will check I think you will discover all grants by the National Institutes of Health now include publication costs for the results to be included in on of the PLoS publications. The PLoS is based on the same ideas as Open Systems computer software. Most scientific publications including Nature only allow full access to members for free. They only present an abstract to others who must then pay depending on the journal and/or society from a few dollars to several hundred dollars to see the full content. The article may not even be useful. All PLoS content is available to anyone.

NatalieEGH
27th March, 2012 @ 10:51 pm PDT

remember the matrix....... if this is true then we could just upload knowledge to our brain.. yehey.. no more going to school... !!!!!!

Abs De Austria
4th May, 2012 @ 04:25 pm PDT
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