What can Google tell us about ‘the memory web’ in the brain?

Posted by ap507 at Nov 15, 2016 03:16 PM |
University of Leicester research in collaboration with the University of California Los Angeles uses internet searches to show how long-term memories are coded in the brain

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 15 November   

Images of ‘the memory web’ and Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga and Emanuela De Falco available at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/uw1v4kik2z340y8/AADlOoPVPucPP4qRf9qa1rCoa?dl=0

  • Associations are a key memory mechanism – to remember personal experiences like meeting a person in a place, we create associations between the concepts involved
  • Team used internet search engines such as Google and Bing for establishing degree of association between concepts and how these associations are encoded by neurons in memory areas
  • Research reveals the neural mechanism underlying ‘the memory web’, as neurons showed a long term coding of meaningful associations

A new study by researchers from the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester, in collaboration with the University of California Los Angeles, has helped to untangle ‘the memory web’ by shedding light on how neurons in memory-related areas provide a long-term coding of associations between concepts.

The team also used internet search engines such as Google and Bing for exploring a much larger database of associations between concepts and then explored more comprehensively how neurons represent the intricate web of associations and memories.

The research, which is published in the journal Nature Communications, shows that these neurons fire to relatively few concepts, which tend to be largely related.

Senior author Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga from the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester explained: “We have previously proposed that these neurons – the ‘Jennifer Aniston’ neurons - are the building blocks of memory.

“They represent concepts and the links between them. In fact, these concepts and their associations are the skeleton of the memories we store. In line with this view, we tend to remember concepts and forget countless number of details. Not surprisingly, such details are not even encoded by these neurons.”

First author Emanuela De Falco, who is currently finishing her PhD at the University of Leicester, added: ”I am really glad I had the chance to do my PhD in such a fascinating area of research, having the opportunity to record directly from neurons of patients and integrating results obtained with these neural recordings with behavioural and web-based results. I found it incredibly interesting to see how, after thousands of web searches, the web metric was actually able to tell us something about the neurons we recorded.”

The team showed sets of pictures - about 100 per experiment - to patients implanted with clinical electrodes for clinical reasons, which allowed them to study how dozens of simultaneously recorded neurons in awake and behaving human subjects responded to the presented pictures.

The team then asked subjects how much they related a subset - about 10-20 - of these pictures with each other and defined a degree of association for all the pictures presented based on internet searches.

They found that whenever neurons fire to more than one concept, these tend to be related both according to the subjects’ scores and the internet searches.

Professor Quiroga added: “Interestingly, the patients were not performing a memory task, they were just passively watching pictures. So, the coding of associations is not contingent to the performance of a task – in which case, it could be argued that neurons temporarily encode such associations and then do something else – but it rather represents a long-term memory storage.”

The study, ‘Long-term coding of personal and universal associations underlying the memory web in the human brain’, which also involved Matias Ison at Leicester and Itzhak Fried at UCLA was funded by the Human Frontiers Science Programme and is published in the journal Nature Communications.

DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13408

ENDS 

Notes to editors:

For more information contact Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga on rqqg1@le.ac.uk

The Human Frontier Science Program Organization was founded in 1989 to support international research and training at the frontier of the life sciences. It is supported by contributions from the G7 nations, together with Switzerland, Australia, India, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Republic of Korea and the European Union. With its collaborative research grants and postdoctoral fellowship programs, the Program has approved over 4000 awards involving more than 6700 scientists from all over the world during the 27 years of its existence. The HFSPO supports research at the interface between the life sciences and the physical sciences and places special emphasis on creating opportunities for young scientists.

 

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