By tracking brain activity when an animal stops to look around its environment, neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins University believe they can mark the birth of a memory.
Using lab rats on a circular track, James Knierim, professor of neuroscience in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins, and a team of brain scientists noticed that the rats frequently paused to inspect their environment with head movements as they ran. The scientists found that this behavior activated a place cell in their brain, which helps the animal construct a cognitive map, a pattern of activity in the brain that reflects the animal's internal representation of its environment.
In a paper recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers state that when the rodents passed that same area of the track seconds later, place cells fired again, a neural acknowledgement that the moment has imprinted itself in the brain's cognitive map in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is the brain's warehouse for long- and short-term processing of episodic memories, such as memories of a specific experience like a trip to Maine or a recent dinner. What no one knew was what happens in the hippocampus the moment an experience imprints itself as a memory.
"This is like seeing the brain form memory traces in real time," said Knierim, senior author of the research. "Seeing for the first time the brain creating a spatial firing field tied to a specific behavioral experience suggests that the map can be updated rapidly and robustly to lay down a memory of that experience."
A place cell is a type of neuron within the hippocampus that becomes active when an animal or human enters a particular place in its environment. The activation of the cells
helps create a spatial framework much like a map, that allows humans and animals to know where they are in any given location. Place cells can also act like neural flags t
|Contact: Latarsha Gatlin|
Johns Hopkins University