Neurons in the brain tune into different frequencies for different spatial memory tasks

Researchers recorded gamma waves in the brains of rats navigating through a simple environment to understand how current and past locations are represented in the brain. Credit: Laura Colgin/University of Texas at Austin

Your brain transmits information about your current location and memories of past locations over the same neural pathways using different frequencies of a rhythmic electrical activity called gamma waves, report neuroscientists at The University of Texas at Austin.

The research, published in the journal Neuron on April 17, may provide insight into the cognitive and disruptions seen in diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's, in which are disturbed.

Previous research has shown that the same brain region is activated whether we're storing memories of a new place or recalling past places we've been.

"Many of us leave our cars in a parking garage on a daily basis. Every morning, we create a memory of where we parked our car, which we retrieve in the evening when we pick it up," said Laura Colgin, assistant professor of neuroscience and member of the Center for Learning and Memory in The University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. "How then do our brains distinguish between current location and the memory of a location? Our new findings suggest a mechanism for distinguishing these different representations."

Memory involving location is stored in an area of the brain called the . The neurons in the hippocampus that store spatial memories (such as the location where you parked your car) are called place cells. The same set of place cells are activated both when a new memory of a location is stored and, later, when the memory of that location is recalled or retrieved.

When the hippocampus forms a new spatial memory, it receives sensory information about your current location from a brain region called the . When the hippocampus recalls a past location, it retrieves the stored spatial memory from a subregion of the hippocampus called CA3.

The entorhinal cortex and CA3 transmit these different types of information using different frequencies of gamma waves. The entorhinal cortex uses fast gamma waves, which have a frequency of about 80 Hz (about the same frequency as a bass E note played on a piano). In contrast, CA3 sends its signals on slow gamma waves, which have a frequency of about 40 Hz.

Colgin and her colleagues hypothesized that fast gamma waves promote encoding of recent experiences, while slow gamma waves support memory retrieval.

They tested these hypotheses by recording gamma waves in the hippocampus, together with electrical signals from place cells, in rats navigating through a simple environment. They found that place cells represented the rat's current location when cells were active on fast gamma waves. When cells were active on slow gamma waves, represented locations in the direction that the rat was heading.

"These findings suggest that fast gamma waves promote current memory encoding, such as the memory of where we just parked," said Colgin. "However, when we need to remember where we are going, like when finding our parked car later in the day, the hippocampus tunes into slow gamma waves."

Because gamma waves are seen in many areas of the brain besides the hippocampus, Colgin's findings may generalize beyond . The ability for neurons to tune into different frequencies of gamma waves provides a way for the brain to traffic different types of information across the same neuronal circuits.

Colgin said one of the next steps in her team's research will be to apply technologies that induce different types of gamma waves in rats performing memory tasks. She imagines that they will be able to improve new memory encoding by inducing fast gamma waves. Conversely, she expects that inducing slow gamma waves will be detrimental to the encoding of new memories. Those slow gamma waves should trigger old memories, which would interfere with new learning.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Brain waves encode information as time signals

Dec 16, 2013

How information is processed and encoded in the brain is a central question in neuroscience, as it is essential for high cognitive function such as learning and memory. Theta-gamma oscillations are "brain ...

Recommended for you

Out of danger: A neural basis for avoiding threats

10 hours ago

Researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have identified a key neuronal pathway that makes learning to avoid unpleasant situations possible. Published online in the November 20 issue of Neuron, the wo ...

New approach for treating ALS

16 hours ago

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that primarily kills motor neurons, leading to paralysis and death 2 to 5 years from diagnosis. Currently ALS has no ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

russell_russell
not rated yet Apr 18, 2014
An interesting thesis.
Have humans go through the paces, mazes and tests too.
Have humans park their cars in any parking scenario you choose.

1.)Make sure anywhere they park their car all other cars present are indistinguishable from their own car as far as the area they are able see - the horizons of their field of vision is concerned.

2.)Make sure anywhere they park their car all other cars present are distinct from their own car as far as the area they are able see - the horizons of their field of vision is concerned. (As an example here: their car is white, any and/or all other cars are black)

.3)Continue to choose any parking scenario (parameters of choice) that gives or takes away support to the hypothesis proposed.

Return humans test subjects back to their natural habitat after all testing is done.

If any, what are the signal differences of frequency between the success or failure of participants ability to recall, reconstruct, reenact, retrieve or remember location?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.