Your brain has its own box of memories. If you were to hold it in your hand, brush off the dust and open it up, you’d be able to pull out Polaroid snaps of your most treasured memories. Your graduation ceremony perhaps, your wedding day, your daughter’s first words – all things you wouldn’t want to forget. But how does your brain keep these memories in their crystal-clear clarity?
The strength of a memory lies in its formation and upkeep. When we create a memory, thin connections, called axons, form between nerve cells in our brain. The point at which two axons connect is called a synapse, and it is the strength of the synapse that determines if the memory is kept or allowed to fade away.
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Now, a study in mice carried out by Nobel Prize-winning researchers at Columbia University has shown that a protein called CPEB3 plays an important role in the formation of memories. The team discovered how this protein is stored and used in the brain and hope it could lead to new methods of slowing memory loss in humans.
“The science of how synapses form and are strengthened over time is important for deciphering any disorder in which synapses – and the memories associated with them – degrade and die, such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr Luana Fioriti.
CPEB3 is created by the brain’s memory centre, the hippocampus. Once produced, it is stored in chamber-like structures called P bodies that protect it from other parts of the cell. It then travels to the synapse between nerve cells where required and is gradually released to help create a specific memory.
The findings suggest that the more CPEB3 released at a synapse, the stronger the connection and thus, the more concrete the resulting memory is. When the protein was removed, the mice could create new memories but were unable to keep them.
As a version of CPEB3 can be found in human brains, this discovery represents a promising new avenue for research into memory loss.
“Memory is what makes us who we are. It permeates our lives and is fundamental to our very existence,” said Nobel Laureate Dr Eric Kandel. “But at its core, memory is a biological process, not unlike a heartbeat. With this study, we’ve shed new light on the molecular underpinnings behind our brain’s ability to make, keep and recall memories over the course of our lives.”
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