Memories Are Made of These

Since the early 1900s, scientists have pondered an age old question: what are memories made of? In the 1920s, Karl Lashley embarked on his famous journey to find “the engram” – the place in the brain where memories are stored. In 1949, Donald Hebb proposed his famous postulate of how memories could be formed, insisting that brain “cells that fire together, wire together” as part of a “cell assembly.” Since those early days of neuroscience, scientists have worked extensively to characterize brain mechanisms that could support memory formation.

The first support for Hebb’s idea was the demonstration of long-term potentiation (LTP), an increase in strength between connected groups of brain cells after artificial high-frequency stimulation. While this was an important demonstration that scientists would work to explain for the next several decades, they have not always agreed on whether LTP is a memory mechanism. Carol Barnes, Ph.D., Regents’ Professor of Psychology & Neurology at Arizona State University, posed the famous question – what would constitute proof? After decades of research, we finally have the answer.

The study was led by Nobel laureate Roger Y. Tsien, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine and Roberto Malinow, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego and National Academy of Sciences member. The study was published online in the June 2014 issue of Nature.

To investigate, the researchers trained rats to fear a tone by pairing it with a foot shock, which resulted in freezing behavior indicative of fear learning. Subsequently, the researchers replaced the tone with a pulse of blue light that could be used to stimulate specific inputs to the lateral amygdala, part of the brain’s fear learning center.

In these rats, the lateral amygdala had previously been injected with a virus containing a gene capable of producing light-sensitive channels that could respond to light stimulation, an approach known as optogenetics. In this paradigm, pairing the pulse of light (aimed at the rats’ lateral amygdalae) with a foot shock produced robust fear learning, as indicated by freezing behavior.

Interestingly, cells of the lateral amygdala showed LTP, indicating that the light-driven stimulation of the amygdala was capable of inducing in LTP in rats that learned to fear. Interestingly, this light-driven fear memory could be inactivated by light stimulation capable of inducing long-term depression (a pattern opposite of LTP) in the amygdala. In this case, freezing behavior was not observed, indicating that LTP is an essential component of inducing fear memory in the amygdala. Importantly, light stimulation that re-induced LTP in the lateral amygdala was capable of reinstating the fear memory. These observations indicate that LTP of the lateral amygdala is necessary for fear learning.

While many previous studies have demonstrated parallels between LTP, LTD, and memory, this is the first study to directly manipulate specific populations of brain cells to demonstrate the relationship between LTP and behavioral memory.

“This is the best evidence so far, period,” said Eric R. Kandel, M.D., Nobel laureate and Professor of Brain Science at Columbia University. Indeed, “no previous studies showed definitively that LTP is a basis for and required for memory,” said Robert Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences member.

Dr. Malinow is clearly happy that the experiments worked. “It’s a bit of a relief and we can celebrate a little too,” he said.


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Image via StudioSmart / Shutterstock.

Dario Dieguez, Jr, PhD

Dario Dieguez, Jr., Ph.D., spent over a decade conducting neuroscience research relevant to cognitive brain aging. He worked as a Science Writer in the Office of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D. and at NIH's Center for Scientific Review. He taught Cellular Biology and Neurochemistry at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Cognitive Psychology at Boston University. For several years, he worked as a consultant for Pearson, Inc. and as a freelance science writer, with several clients in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Germany. As a Research Program Manager at the Lupus Foundation of America, he oversaw the awarding of millions of dollars for research and was integral to the launching of Lupus Science and Medicine, an open access journal. Currently, he works as a Health Scientist Administrator at the Society for Women's Health Research and is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Bioethics at The Washington Center.
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