Working memory is the ability to learn, retain and retrieve bits of
information we all need in the short term: items on a grocery list or
driving directions, for example. Working memory deteriorates faster in
people with dementia or other disorders of the brain and mind.
In the past, researchers have believed this executive function was
the job of single neurons acting independently from one another - the
brain's version of a crowd of people in a large room all singing
different songs in different rhythms and different keys. An outsider
trying to decipher any tune in all that white noise would have an
extraordinarily difficult task.
‘Nerve cells in our brain work together in harmony to store and retrieve short-term memory, and are not solo artists as previously thought.’
A new research, however, suggests many in the neuron throng are
singing from the same songbook, in essence creating chords to strengthen
the collective voice of memory.
Nerve cells in our brains work together in harmony to store and
retrieve short-term memory, and are not solo artists as previously
thought, determined a Western-led brain research.
The research turns on its head decades of studies assuming that
single neurons independently encode information in our working memories.
"These findings suggest that even neurons we previously thought were
'useless' because they didn't individually encode information have a
purpose when working in concert with other neurons," said researcher
Julio Martinez-Trujillo, based at the Robarts Research Institute and the
Brain and Mind Institute at Western University.
"Knowing they work together helps us better understand the circuits
in the brain that can either improve or hamper executive function. And
that in turn may have implications for how we work though brain-health
issues where short-term memory is a problem, including Alzheimer
disease, schizophrenia, autism, depression and attention deficit
With neural prosthetic technology -
microchips that can "listen" to many neurons at the same time -
researchers are able to find correlations between the activity of many
nerve cells. "Using that same choir analogy, you can start perceiving
some sounds that have a rhythm, a tune and chords that are related to
each other: in sum, short-term memories," said Martinez-Trujillo, who is
also an associate professor at Western's Schulich School of Medicine
And while the ramifications of this discovery are still being
explored, "this gives us good material to work with as we move forward
in brain research. It provides us with the necessary knowledge to find
ways to manipulate brain circuits and improve short term memory in
affected individuals," Martinez-Trujillo said.
"The microchip technology also allows us to extract signals from the
brain in order to reverse-engineer brain circuitry and decode the
information that is in the subject's mind. In the near future, we could
use this information to allow cognitive control of neural prosthetics in
patients with ALS or severe cervical spinal cord injury," said Adam
Sachs, neurosurgeon and associate scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and
assistant professor at the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research