According to Dr. Joe Tsien, neuroscientist and co-director of MCG's Brain and Behaviour Discovery Institute, the breakthrough could help pinpoint at what stage memory formation is flawed and whether drugs are improving it.
"It's a beginning, a first glimpse of a memory," said Tsien.
"For the first time it gives us the ability to look at the brain dynamic and tell what kind of memory is formed, what are the components of the memory and how the memory is retrieved at the network level," Tsien added.
Combining the new technology and computational methods, the researchers created an algorithm that translated the neuronal chatter into a discernable and dynamic activity pattern that provided them a trace or picture of what the memory looked like as it was formed and recalled.
"By listening to the neuronal activity we were able to decipher the real-time dynamic pattern and the meaning of those conversations so this is really satisfying," said Tsien.
The trace changed slightly each time it was recalled - likely as the mood or situation of the mice changed - but still remained recognizable as a specific memory.
Problems with memory, the most fundamental cognitive function, can occur at any level - learning, consolidating, storing or retrieving.
The ability to watch memories being made in real time should help pinpoint where problems lie, enabling more targeted research and eventual treatment.
"If you don't know the basic biomarkers such as blood glucose or insulin level, it's hard to assess and study diabetes," said Tsien.
"Without knowing what memory traces are, you really don't have the precise physiological biomarkers to study memory and to reliably evaluate the effectiveness of treatment of memory disorders. We all know that behaviour can be quite misleading sometime," Tsien added.
The ability to tell what memory is produced and how good that memory is could also dramatically shape development of machines that are controlled directly by the mind, rather than those using hands as an intermediary. Related technology is already advancing patient care.
The study is published in PLoS ONE.