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B L A C K A N D G O L D P U R K I N J E S
, E N A M E L O N C O M P O S I T I O N G O L D L E A F , 4 2 ” X 4 2 ” , G R E G D U N N , 2 0 1 0 , W W W . G R E G A D U N N . C O M
So much of memory is a puzzle. How can the experiences of alifetime—the sights and sounds, people and places, successes andfailures—be recorded in the soft tissue of the brain? How can thosememories persist for decades even as the neurons that encode themundergo constant molecular remodeling? And how can we (moreoften than not) recall a particular bit of information almost instanta-neously, and with little prompting?This last question may be the most mysterious of all. “Retrievalis such a rich phenomenon,” says Michael Hasselmo, a neuro-scientist at Boston University. “You get a reminder from somebodythat’s maybe just a word and you somehow turn it into a rich internalmovie of events that you’re moving through with a perspective anda location and a sense of time passing.” Our memories are part of what makes each of us unique (see p. 35), and they give us a sense of self-identity and continuity as we move through life. “Without our memories, we’re just zombies,” says György Buzsáki, a neuroscien-tist at New York University in New York City.The neuroscience of memory is a complex and contentious area, but most researchers agree on a broad-brush account that goessomething like this, at least for episodic memories, or memories of events. These memories are initially encoded and stored mostly in thehippocampus, deep inside the temporal lobe of the brain. For long-term storage, memories are ﬁled away to other areas, includingthe neocortex, the thin sheet of tissue on the surface of the brain. Amemory of any given event, the thinking goes, is represented by asparse and scattered network of neurons, such that the sights, sounds,and emotions associated with the experience may each reside in adifferent location. To recall that memory, the brain must somehowreactivate just the right subset of neurons. Many details of this pro-cess are not known (or are disputed). Even so, some researchers sayit’s time to revise some aspects of the standard view—such as thenotion that the hippocampus is not involved in retrieving older epi-sodic memories, and that memories become ﬁxed and unchangeableonce transferred to the neocortex. Newer work suggests a far moreﬂuid role of memory, and one in which retrieval plays a crucial rolein shaping memory over time.So what should researchers look for if they hope to learn how the brain recalls the past? One clue comes from functional magnetic res-onance imaging (fMRI) studies of the human brain suggesting thatremembering reactivates some of the same neural circuitry as theoriginal experience. Recalling a face, for example, activates a part of the fusiform gyrus thought to specialize in face recognition. Recall-ing a place evokes a different pattern of brain activity that includesthe parahippocampal gyrus, an area that lights up when people viewimages of landscapes and other scenes.“We have a pretty good idea that the brain uses the same machin-ery for remembering that it does for experiencing things,” saysLoren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, SanFrancisco. When it comes to episodic memories, Frank says, what’sstored in the brain are little snippets of the experience that can becompiled into a kind of highlight reel. The neural signature of mem-ory retrieval, Frank argues, should look much like the neural signa-ture of the actual experience played in fast-forward.There’s disagreement about how fast the replay should be, butseveral labs, including Frank’s, have found something like this in the
How Are MemoriesRetrieved?
NEXT WEEK, TENS OF THOUSANDS OF
researchers will make their way to NewOrleans, Louisiana, for the annual meet-ing of the Society for Neuroscience, atestament to both the vitality of this dis-cipline and how little we know about thebody’s most complex organ. To identifyand explore some of the brain’s endur-ing mysteries, Senior Editor Peter Sternand the news staff at
have con-sulted with neuroscientists from ourBoard of Reviewing Editors and else-where. The brain mysteries we chose fora closer examination here encompassmedical science, evolutionary biology,cognitive science, and more—and leavemany provocative questions to anothertime (see p. 39).
–LESLIE ROBERTS AND JOHN TRAVIS
5 OCTOBER 2012 VOL 338
Published by AAAS
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