New study demonstrates key brain region in contextual memories

August 12, 2014
Brain diagram. Credit:

Dartmouth researchers demonstrate in a new study that a previously understudied part of the brain, the retrosplenial cortex, is essential for forming the basis for contextual memories, which help you to recall events ranging from global disasters to where you parked your car.

The findings appear in the journal The Journal of Neuroscience.

An important aspect of memory is the ability to recall the physical place, or context, in which an event occurred. For example, in recalling emotionally charged events, such as the Sept. 11 terror attacks or JFK assassination, we remember not only the event but where we were when it happened. Indeed, in discussing such event with others, we often ask "where were you when..." Processing "where" information is also important for mundane daily events, such as remembering where you parked your car.

Although it is known that a specific network of is important for contextual memory, it has remained unknown how different parts of the network contribute to this process. But using a newly developed technology known as chemogenetics, Professor David Bucci's laboratory is beginning to elucidate how different structures contribute to contextual learning and memory. Developed at the University of North Carolina, the chemogenetics technique enables researchers to "remotely control" the activity of brains cells. This is accomplished by using a virus to transfers genes for a synthetic receptor into a brain region. The receptors are responsive only to a synthetic drug that is administered through a simple injection. By binding to the receptors, the drug temporarily turns off—or turns on—brain cells in that region for a short amount of time.

Using this approach, Bucci's laboratory demonstrated in an experiment with rats that the retrosplenial cortex is critical for forming the basis for contextual memories. It was the first time the chemogenetics technique has been used to turn off cells along the entire retrosplenial cortex. The importance of this finding is underscored by two recent studies showing that the hippocampus, another key brain region involved in contextual memories, is not itself active or necessary for forming the initial associations that underlie contextual memory.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Bucci a five-year, $725,000 grant to continue this research. "By providing new insight into the function of this part of the brain, our work will also have implications for understanding the basis for illnesses that impact contextual memory, such as Alzheimer's disease," Bucci says. "In fact, recent studies have shown that the retrosplenial cortex is one of the first brain areas that is damaged in persons with Alzheimer's disease."

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

Related Stories

New study suggests a better way to deal with bad memories

April 18, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—What's one of your worst memories? How did it make you feel? According to psychologists, remembering the emotions felt during a negative personal experience, such as how sad you were or how embarrassed ...

What happened when? How the brain stores memories by time

March 12, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Before I left the house this morning, I let the cat out and started the dishwasher. Or was that yesterday? Very often, our memories must distinguish not just what happened and where, but when an event occurred—and ...

Recommended for you

Rat brain atlas provides MR images for stereotaxic surgery

October 21, 2016

Boris Odintsov, senior research scientist at the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Thomas Brozoski, research professor ...

ALS study reveals role of RNA-binding proteins

October 20, 2016

Although only 10 percent of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) cases are hereditary, a significant number of them are caused by mutations that affect proteins that bind RNA, a type of genetic material. University of California ...

Imaging technique maps serotonin activity in living brains

October 20, 2016

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that's partly responsible for feelings of happiness and for mood regulation in humans. This makes it a common target for antidepressants, which block serotonin from being reabsorbed by neurons ...

Overcoming egocentricity increases self-control

October 19, 2016

Neurobiological models of self-control usually focus on brain mechanisms involved in impulse control and emotion regulation. Recent research at the University of Zurich shows that the mechanism for overcoming egocentricity ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Aug 12, 2014
This is called 'Flashbulb memory' which has been demonstrated to be very inaccurate despite the gravity of the event.

I recall an study done after the Challenger disaster (Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch) asked students to note down in a diary where they were when they heard the news. Accuracy eroded quite quickly with 25% of participants miss-recalling after 7 months.


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.