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Hunting for Memory

Category: Science & Technology
Posted: 06:17PM

The records and logs of a computer are stored on the hard drive, a single and specific piece of hardware. Could there be a similar single and specific area of the brain responsible for memory? Researchers at MIT believe they have found something which may lead to such a discovery.

Just as with computer storage, human memories are stored in physical changes to the brain. Instead of the magnetic field of a bit being flipped though, it is the connections between neurons which encode memory. To initiate new connections to form requires genes within the neurons to be activated, and the researchers have identified a gene which may activate these other genes. Called Npas4, this gene controls the transcription process of other genes into messenger RNA. The RNA strands are what would trigger a neuron to produce new connections.

This gene’s use was identified using contextual fear conditioning. Mice learned to fear a specific chamber by receiving an electric shock every time they entered it. By monitoring the mice, the researchers identified its activation coming very early into the conditioning process, unlike many other activity-regulated genes. Though the learning involved was associated with fear, the belief is Npas4 affects many other learning processes. If this is true it may also be possible to identify were memories are stored in the brain.

To verify this gene directly impacts learning, the researchers suppressed it and repeated the test. The mice were unable to learn to be afraid of the chamber, unlike the unaltered mice.

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