Neuroscience is steadily deciphering the mysteries of the brain, as some of the brightest minds in the scientific community challenge old ideas about what makes us tick.
The latest target is the perennial topic of memory, which has preoccupied psychologists for more than a century, and is now being dusted down and revisited, overturning some of the received wisdom in fascinating ways.
How are memories formed and used? Conventional thinking says that there are two kinds of memory: short and long term. Short term is for when you briefly store something, for example a phone number that you forget as soon as you’ve used it. Long term is what you put in the brain’s filing cabinet, such as the day you met your loved one.
So far so good, but the conventional model is fraying at the edges, and the implications of new research – described as ‘beautiful and convincing’ - could have a substantial impact on our understanding of the tragic effects of diseases like Altzheimer’s and related conditions.
Traditional models assumed that experiences came into the brain and somehow travelled to the hippocampus for the ‘short term’ memories, or ‘long term’ areas of storage in the cortex. This breakthrough research by Prof. Susumo Tonegawa at MIT suggests that we store not one but two copies of each memory, simultaneously in those two areas. If true, it suggests that memories are not ‘lost’ over time, but can be retrieved from storage. Could this mean the end of memory loss? Only time – and more research – will tell.