Receive our editor’s picks

Total recall: how scientists are rethinking memory

European research into memory looks at understanding how the mind works rather than controlling it. Image: Shutterstock/Lightspring
European research into memory looks at understanding how the mind works rather than controlling it. Image: Shutterstock/Lightspring

Social networks and advances in genetics are helping scientists to better understand how memory works and how we could bend it to our will.

Erasing and enhancing memory has long been a familiar theme in Hollywood blockbusters, but could researchers now turn the science fiction into reality?

According to Professor Lars Olson, at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, research in genetics and omics – which studies how biological molecules of a certain type function together as a collective system – is helping to reveal the underlying mechanisms of memory in unprecedented detail.

‘Today, we can follow alterations of all the DNA, RNA and protein species in the brain,’ said Prof. Olson. ‘We owe this advance to genetics and the ability to conduct omic-measurements on scales which were unheard of ten years ago.’

Prof. Olson leads the MEMORYSTICK project, which is funded by the European Research Council (ERC). Researchers on the project hope to shed light on why people can forget names and telephone numbers in minutes, while some memories last for their entire lives.

‘The brain is not a computer,’ said Prof. Olson. ‘It cannot be hardwired.’ Even lasting memories are only recorded in the malleable connections between neurons in the brain and what defines their closeness is a matter of ongoing research.

‘The brain is not a computer. It cannot be hardwired.’

Professor Lars Olson, Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Sweden

Prof. Olson’s group has discovered that when neurons increase their activity they stop making a protein called Nogo receptor. He has hypothesised that this decrease in Nogo receptor allows connections between neurons to rearrange.

Now, the MEMORYSTICK project aims to find out whether the concentration of Nogo receptor must be reduced for the brain to form lasting memories. To test this, researchers genetically engineered mice that produced Nogo receptor continuously with the result that the animals struggled to remember anything for longer than a day.

The results led Prof. Olson to believe that the molecular pathways controlling the malleability of the brain structure could someday be targeted by drugs to help improve memory, cure addictions or even relieve patients suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Further insight into how memory functions may be provided by Dr Virginia Migues, a neurobiologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who has singled out proteins that help control communication between neurons. This year, the European Commission awarded her a grant for the MEMORY PERSISTENCE project, which will investigate whether these proteins affect the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying long-term memory persistence.

Over the coming years, Dr Migues will teach rats to remember locations. She will then study whether her test subjects grow less forgetful when she reduces the production of the proteins controlling neuronal communication.

However, tampering with the brain raises delicate questions. ‘Memories allow us to make sense of the world around us,’ said Dr Migues. ‘Simply erasing them would be like getting rid of part of who we are.’

Using your digital footprint

Professor Nigel Davies at Lancaster University shares their objective of understanding memory, although from a radically different standpoint. He coordinates a European-funded project named RECALL, in which computer scientists and psychologists rethink memory enhancement with the support of information that people store online.

‘If you think of the data uploaded on social networks, emails, life-logging systems or activity traced by mobile phones, vast portions of your everyday lives are recorded electronically,’ said Prof. Davies. ‘RECALL is developing computer algorithms that harness this information to augment human memory.’

For people trying to learn a language or remember things at work, RECALL could display study notes in a corner of their smart phone, internet browser, or even on interactive billboards in the street.

Prof. Davies also sees potential to support failing memories or behaviour changes for people who are trying to quit smoking or exercise more. The point is to enhance memory, rather than replace it. ‘The danger is to think of RECALL as a photo album on steroids. For us it is about improving the ability of people to remember,’ he said.

More info