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Question Your World: How Can We Bring Back Lost Memories?

Our memories are arguably the most important thing we have. Nearly every moment of our lives is predicated upon the past and our learned experiences, for better or for worse. For some the aging process becomes a battle to retain memories. This had scientists asking an interesting question: How can we bring back lost memories? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

The brain is a pretty remarkable part of the universe. For over 200,000 years the human brain has been working around the clock to regulate the bodily needs, explore the world around us, and even try to figure out how the brain itself works! The way we experience the world is through our neural pathways. Long strands of cells link up together and send data in the form of chemical pulses through one another to ultimately create the most powerful communication and computational network we know as of now. The human brain processes over six trillion messages a minute! All this is happens through axons and dendrites, the outer connection and extension of these nerve cells. Where these pieces meet up is where this breaking news story takes place. There is a small space between these connection points and that is where the chemical transfers of information take place. As aging sets in some of these connections develop a buildup of Beta Amyloid Peptides. This causes to block or drastically slow down the chemical transfer, thus vastly impacting the functionality of these nerve endings. When cellular strands that pertain to memory are impacted by this buildup we see a loss of memory retrieval, such as Alzheimer’s for instance.

Well, there’s some interesting news coming out of California that may change the way we look at those nerve endings and the build up of Beta Amyloid Peptides which cause memory problems. Recently, a group of scientists looked into the ability to control those synaptic connections. Using a rat they conducted an experiment which had some pretty remarkable results. This test involved a light stimulus to study the optical nerves and their connector-endings to see if these memory transfer strands could be controlled. First the rat was shown a pulse of light and its foot was shocked, this caused the rat to have a fearful reaction. As this happened there were tests done on that nerve connection to see how it reacts to the various changes. The rat’s reaction to the pulse of light was now linked with the fear of the shock. As a second step the rat was shown the same intensity light, but pulsed at a low frequency. Interestingly enough they observed that the nerve cell reacted in a way which seemed to rid the memory of the shock, but only when shown at a low frequency. Finally the pulses of light were shown at a high frequency and the nerve endings strengthened back up again and the fear of the shock was re-instated. This simple but powerful experiment shows that there are slight control options available over memory. The strengthening and weakening of these synaptic connections opens up a whole new understanding to how our brain works.

These findings may not seem like a huge discovery right away, but for those researching ways of strengthening synaptic connections this is a big one! A better understanding of these mysterious chemical transfer spots in the brain could help us understand how to reactivate old memories that may initially seem lost to the process of aging. Perhaps this varying frequency experiment could open up the mind to thinking about some memory strengthening exercises as well as understanding the chemicals needed for surgical or other medical treatment. Regardless, the control over memories is a powerful ability to have access to, for better or for worse.

Article by: Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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