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Researchers watch as brain remembers

Washington University In St Louis : 21 September, 2000  (Technical Article)
In the Sept. 26 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that some areas of the brain which are involved in looking at pictures and listening to sounds are also involved in remembering them.
If someone asks what your dog looks like or how your mother sounds, you typically conjure up an image or voice. One of the fundamental challenges behind understanding memory is to determine how the brain reconstructs these experiences and uses them to remember the actual image or sound.

In 1890, psychologist William James proposed that the memory process reactivates areas of the brain that were activated during the actual experience. Until now, there has been no conclusive empirical evidence to validate this idea. But an approach to brain-imaging recently developed in part by Randy L. Buckner, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Washington University in St. Louis, allows researchers to separate images of brain activity during rapid experimental trials. This technique has produced convincing experimental support. Buckner is an assistant professor of psychology, radiology and of anatomy and neurobiology.

Mark E. Wheeler, a graduate student in Buckner's lab, used the new technique to explore the mechanisms behind memory. He asked participants to memorize a group of pictures and a collection of sounds. Each item had a written label. For example, the word 'lighthouse' appeared next to a picture of a lighthouse, and the participants saw the word 'dog' while hearing a dog bark.

Researchers then obtained functional magnetic resonance images of the brain while the same participants completed two different tasks.

First, the volunteers saw and heard the same pictures and sounds as on the previous day. At the same time, they saw the label for each item. They pressed one button if they saw a picture and a different button if they heard a sound.

Next, they viewed only the written labels but were asked to remember the associated sounds or pictures. Again, they pressed one button for pictures and another for sounds.

Wheeler and Buckner found that certain areas of the brain are active when people see pictures and other areas are active when they hear sounds, which was known before. But they also found that some, but not all, of these areas are also active when people vividly remember these pictures and sounds. When you remember the sound of your mother's voice, for example, some areas of the brain that originally processed the sound are again active when you recall the memory of her voice. This supports James' theory.

'This research is allowing us to piece together how the brain helps us remember. We're seeing the most subtle, sophisticated kind of memory, where individuals remember something they saw or heard with a lot of detail. And we're seeing the brain correlates of those vivid recollections,' explains Buckner.

In the future, the group hopes to use this approach to explore how the memory process breaks down in aging and Alzheimer's disease.
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