A study conducted by UK universities has unlocked insights into how brain neurons create memories and manage storage, which is hoped to support treatment for UKs biggest cause of death
A study led by the University of Glasgow has made a breakthrough discovery on brain neurons that dictate memory storage – which it is believed could be critical in developing treatment for people suffering from memory-loss conditions.
Currently, there are estimated to be almost 950,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and the condition is the leading cause of death in the UK, accounting for about 70,000 deaths each year – more than a tenth of the overall total.
The Glasgow study – supported by partner institutions including the University of Birmingham and the University of Erlangen in Germany – implanted special electrodes into epilepsy patients requiring surgery to investigate the activity of neurons in the hippocampus – the region of the brain that acts as the memory library. Participants had to create memories linking pairs or triplets of images composed of animals, celebrities and landmarks so they could later be asked to recall all images when presented with only one of them.
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By analysing the firing rates of neurons during the memory formation and retrieval stages, researchers could identify those with higher rates throughout specific events. Researchers believe these neurons reactivate the neural assembly, allowing for a complete memory recall, making these the ‘glue’ that keeps all memory elements together, such as the time and place of the event.
Therefore, developing a device that triggers these neurons could mean a significant step forward in treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Simon Hanslmayr, leader of the research team, said: “We are incredibly excited by our findings because neurons that behave in such a way have been speculated to exist in the human hippocampus for a long time, but this is the first time we actually observed such neurons. Our next step will be to test whether stimulation of these neurons can trigger the recall of memories, which would demonstrate causality.”
Study leader Luca Kolibius added: “The neurons we discovered are, in essence, acting as our brain’s memory guide, helping us access and retrieve our cherished memories, like a librarian leading us to the right book on the shelf; so, to discover more about how they work is both exciting and important.”
The study, Hippocampal neurons code individual episodic memories in humans, was funded by a grant scheme from the European Research Council and is now also featured in Nature Human Behaviour journal.
A version of this article originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood