New research may have discovered how memories are encoded in our brains

March 19, 2012

University of Alberta led research may have discovered how memories are encoded in our brains.

Scientists understand memory to exist as strengthened synaptic connections among neurons. However components of synaptic membranes are relatively short-lived and frequently re-cycled while memories can last a lifetime.

Based on this information, U of A physicist and lead researcher Jack Tuszynski, his graduate student Travis Craddock and University of Arizona professor Stuart Hameroff investigated the of memory encoding in neurons.

The team looked into structures at the cytoskeletal level of . They found components that fit together and were capable of creating the information processing and storage capacity that the brain needs to form and retain memory.

The practical implications of understanding the mechanism of memory encoding are enormous.

"This could open up amazing new possibilities of dealing with problems, interfacing our brains with hybrid devices to augment and 'refresh' our memories," says Tuszynski. "More importantly, it could lead to new therapeutic and preventive ways of dealing with such as Alzheimer's and dementia, whose incidence is growing very rapidly these days."

Q & A with Jack Tuszynski
Why did you decide to tackle the question of where the information pertinent to memory is stored?

This is one of the key open and most intriguing problems in neuroscience. We read a paper on experiments that were able to safely erase memories in animals. These experiments implicated a specific molecule (the enzyme called calcium-calmodulin dependent kinase complex II) that is instrumental in encoding and erasing memory in the brain. We noticed an amazing similarity in its geometry to a patch of tubulin dimers in a microtubule. Microtubules fill the interiors of our brain's neurons, especially in axons and dendrites where most of the activity takes place. We undertook to find out if this similarity is accidental or not. This led to the generation of a very accurate computational model of the interaction between CaMKII and microtubules. It looks to us that a mechanism for memory encoding has now been found.

What are we looking at in figures 1 through 6 of the paper?

These figures were generated by a computational reconstruction of the molecules that play key roles in memory encoding: tubulin, microtubules and CaMKII. We know their atomic-resolution 3D structures from crystallographic data that are publicly available. We then built computer models of higher level organization of these protein complexes. These models allow us to test the spatial compatibility of the protein-protein interactions as well as to calculate interaction energies to see if they attract themselves under specific conditions and if so, how strongly.

Could an understanding of this mechanism lead to improvements or repairs to the memory function and could memories themselves be restored?

Yes, all of this is entirely possible. We can potentially use this insight to improve quality of memory storage, memory recall, information processing as well as the amount of data stored.

Are you planning follow-up research to this paper?

We are already working on various applied aspects related to this paper. Another paper has been just accepted for publication, based on our collaboration with University of Arizona, Harvard and Boston University, where we propose a molecular mechanism of Alzheimer's disease progression. This should soon be published in PLos One and it'll lead to specific therapeutic solutions as our next project. It turns out that the concentration of zinc plays a crucial role in stabilizing microtubules but also in fueling the buildup of amyloid plaques. We developed a physical model of the process. A third paper in this series stemming from Travis Craddock's PhD thesis discusses the effects of anesthetic molecules on memory blockage in brain's microtubules.

Explore further: Cracking brain memory code

More information: Their paper, "Cytoskeletal Signaling: Is Memory Encoded in Microtuble Lattices by CaMKII Phosphorylation?" was published in the journal, PLoS Computational Biology.

Related Stories

Cracking brain memory code

March 9, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Despite a century of research, memory encoding in the brain has remained mysterious. Neuronal synaptic connection strengths are involved, but synaptic components are short-lived while memories last lifetimes. ...

Study provides potential explanation for mechanisms of associative memory

December 13, 2011
Researchers from the University of Bristol have discovered that a chemical compound in the brain can weaken the synaptic connections between neurons in a region of the brain important for the formation of long-term memories. ...

Brain rehearsal time ensures lasting memory performance

February 14, 2012
University of Alberta researchers have established that the ability of the brain to rehearse or repeat electrical impulses may be absolutely critical in order to make a newly acquired memory more permanent.

Team isolates nerve cells involved in storing long term memory and gene proteins associated with them

February 10, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- A research team in Taiwan has succeeded in isolating two nerve cells in fruit fly brains that are believed to be the major players in allowing for the formation of long term memories. Furthermore, they’ve ...

Recommended for you

Study uncovers specialized mouse neurons that play a unique role in pain

August 17, 2017
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have identified a class of sensory neurons (nerve cells that electrically send and receive messages between the body and brain) that can be activated by stimuli as precise ...

Scientists discover powerful potential pain reliever

August 16, 2017
A team of scientists led by chemists Stephen Martin and James Sahn at The University of Texas at Austin have discovered what they say is a powerful pain reliever that acts on a previously unknown pain pathway. The synthetic ...

Scientists use magnetic fields to remotely stimulate brain—and control body movements

August 16, 2017
Scientists have used magnetism to activate tiny groups of cells in the brain, inducing bodily movements that include running, rotating and losing control of the extremities—an achievement that could lead to advances in ...

Scientists give star treatment to lesser-known cells crucial for brain development

August 16, 2017
After decades of relative neglect, star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes are finally getting their due. To gather insight into a critical aspect of brain development, a team of scientists examined the maturation of astrocytes ...

The nerve-guiding 'labels' that may one day help re-establish broken nervous connections

August 16, 2017
Scientists have identified a large group of biological 'labels' that guide nerves to ensure they make the correct connections and control different parts of the body. Although their research was conducted with fruit flies, ...

Navigation and spatial memory—new brain region identified to be involved

August 16, 2017
Navigation in mammals including humans and rodents depends on specialized neural networks that encode the animal's location and trajectory in the environment, serving essentially as a GPS, findings that led to the 2014 Nobel ...

0 comments

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.