A recent study has highlighted the biological basis for being able to recall certain events when something significant has occurred either before or after the event. This has interesting implications for individuals who want to commit something to long-term memory, such as knowledge about abstract things or even concrete facts.

The locus coeruleus is a region in the brain responsible for vital functions such as memory, concentration, mental ability and integration of new information. It is also a component of the “fight or flight” response, in which it produces noradrenaline that is released into the bloodstream.

Interestingly, the locus coeruleus is also one of the key anatomical structures involved in Alzheimer’s disease – accumulation of “tau protein” is one of the initiating stages of the neurodegenerative condition. Previous research centered on the locus coeruleus has identified noradrenaline release from the structure as protective, as it shields individuals from the decrease in mental capacity associated with aging.

Neurochemicals can improve memory recall

Researchers have now discovered that engaging, interactive activities can promote secretion of chemicals from the brain that boost memory and enhance retention. One of the study’s main objectives was to assess whether this technique could be applied in educational institutions to improve learning standards and recall by students.

The experiment was conducted on mice – it was observed that mice who were forced to explore new territory for their food were more likely to remember where the food had been kept the previous day. These results are observed due to the release of dopamine from the locus coeruleus upon activation.

Dr. Robert Greene, one of the authors of the study, explained the findings by stating that, “Activation of the locus coeruleus increases our memory of events that happen at the time of activation and may also increase the recall of these memories at a later time.” Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for intellectual functions such as memory and “problem solving.” Disruption in dopamine release or amounts can result in cognitive impairment.

Initial formation of memories has lasting impact on learning

Another recent study delineates the intrinsic molecular mechanisms that underlie the initial phases of learning and memory formation.

Dendritic spines - the minute expansions of dendrites - form a part of excitatory synapses within the brain. Here, they are known to undergo conformational change in response to various different signals. These dendrites come into contact with adjacent neurons, receiving and passing on electrical impulses from them. The response of dendritic neurons to signal reception is a marked increase in cell volume. This process is termed transient spine expansion.

Padmini Rangamini, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, San Diego commented that, “Spines are dynamic structures, changing in size, shape and number during development and aging.

She adds, “Spine dynamics have been implicated in memory, learning and various neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism. Understanding how the different molecules can affect spine dynamics can eventually help us demystify some of these processes in the brain.”

Acquiring a thorough understanding of memory formation is especially beneficial to furthering current understanding of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, which involve memory loss. Hopefully, comprehending the ways memories are formed may provide us with new insight into what processes are altered in neurodegenerative disease states. MIMS

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Memory loss is not the sole indicator of Alzheimer’s disease

http://www.jneurosci.org/content/28/22/5686.full http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/model_maps_out_molecular_roots_of_learning_and_memory_formation