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Medicine Science

Researchers May Have Discovered How Memories Are Encoded In the Brain 185

Posted by timothy
from the enduring-mystery dept.
Zothecula writes "While it's generally accepted that memories are stored somewhere, somehow in our brains, the exact process has never been entirely understood. Strengthened synaptic connections between neurons definitely have something to do with it, although the synaptic membranes involved are constantly degrading and being replaced – this seems to be somewhat at odds with the fact that some memories can last for a person's lifetime. Now, a team of scientists believe that they may have figured out what's going on. Their findings could have huge implications for the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's."
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Researchers May Have Discovered How Memories Are Encoded In the Brain

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  • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:06PM (#39444963) Homepage Journal

    by tiny Gnomes, with silver hammers.

    This is known, even by the most obtuse of my Aunts.

    • by tiny Gnomes, with silver hammers.

      This is known, even by the most obtuse of my Aunts.

      It is known, Khaleesi.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:07PM (#39444983)
    If memories are stored in meat...how come we still have them in the afterlife?
    • by Quartus486 (935104) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:14PM (#39445055)

      Can't answer for other religions, but this is what the Bible says:

      Ecclesiastes 9 (New International Version)

        5 For the living know that they will die,
            but the dead know nothing;
      they have no further reward,
            and even their name is forgotten.

      10 Whatever your hand finds to do,
      do it with all your might, for in the realm
      of the dead, where you are going,
      there is neither working nor planning
      nor knowledge nor wisdom.

      • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:19PM (#39445129)

        Well, isn't that a cheery little missive? Tell me again what the appeal of this religion is? Is it the central zombie figure? The ritual cannibalism? The dramatic "death from above" episodes?

        • by TheCarp (96830)

          I thought the upside was in not having to admit that your parents abused you by giving you an obviously fabricated and useless model for how the world works. At least, thats what I assumed other people must see in it.

        • by asher09 (1684758) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @06:23PM (#39445745) Homepage
          Throughout the OT & NT, "the realm (place/assembly) of the dead" always refers to the place where the condemned will end up and not the saints (those who are justified by faith in God). The place that the saints end up with is referred to as heaven / the land of the living / the dwelling place of the Most High / Paradise / New Jerusalem, etc, but not "the realm of the dead".
          Moreover, Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon when he was "backsliding" (ie falling away from the faith). So he was being cynical about life and not hopeful about future with God. It's easy to take verses out of context and come up with non-Christian ideas from the book of Ecclesiastes for this reason.
          • by Dog-Cow (21281)

            "For this reason"? Really? I would have thought that it was because it was written hundreds of years prior to the first Christian, by a king who followed a different religion.

            The entire "OT", as the thieves of the TaNaCH call it, is filled with non-Christian ideas.

        • by gottabeme (590848)

          One of the appeals is hope. Without it, there is no hope after this life, and little during it.

          Of course, Ecclesiastes is Israelite wisdom literature--it was not written from a Christian perspective, because Christianity didn't exist yet. The Israelites didn't have a concept of the afterlife the way Christians do (they didn't even recognize the Messiah when he came). It doesn't make sense to use Ecclesiastes to attack Christianity. Nevertheless, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is quite valid and rational tod

          • by tehcyder (746570)
            Fine by me, but if you want to jettison all the inconvenient bits of the Old Testament why should anyone have any faith in what's left?

            Once you say "the Bible is the word of God except for x, y and z" you might as well just admit that it's all fiction/metaphor/whatever and therefore to be considered in the same way you would a novel, rather than a piece of history..
            • by gottabeme (590848)

              Well, let's be clear up front: the Bible is certainly a piece of history, whether one believes it's inspired or not. The two issues are not the same.

              I'd like to draw your attention to a serious issue that many people today take for granted. Notice that you referred to a novel. It is a fundamental mistake to apply contemporary literary genres to ancient texts like the Bible. The biblical writers had no concept of novels, or of modern historiography. Their idea of recording and reporting history was very

      • by Sperbels (1008585)
        This seems to contradict the happy little picture of heaven that priests paint.
      • by Empiric (675968)
        There is a strong argument that the possibility of eternal life was first provided to humanity by Jesus, as a significant part of what made his teaching quite revelatory within the context of Judaism. It's well codified in the positions of most Protestant beliefs: sin means everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, hence when you die, you aren't entitled to eternal life, and don't get it. Previous to Jesus, that would have been the (at least near-term) end of the story, as he was crucified as univers
    • by agm (467017)

      What afterlife?

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      St. Peter has all your life written down in his book.

    • If memories are stored in meat...how come we still have them in the afterlife?

      I doubt anyone but a dead man would know whether or not memories carry into the afterlife... and he ain't talking.

      • by gregor-e (136142)
        I've been dead. It's just like being asleep, only without the dreams.
        • by tehcyder (746570)

          I've been dead. It's just like being asleep, only without the dreams.

          Blimey we've got a zombie posting on slashdot.

    • Well, assuming you mean the christian afterlife, you die... and are very really dead, just as atheists believe. The afterlife awaits the rapture, when God will raise the dead to sit with him in heaven. So technically, you'd take your resurrected body and its memories with you into heaven.
    • by Empiric (675968)
      The "meat" is just a substrate for the information and state--if you've ever successfully installed Linux on a flash drive, and later booted it up on another body... I mean, computer... the religious concepts shouldn't pose too much of a metaphysical dilemma for you.
      • by tehcyder (746570)

        The "meat" is just a substrate for the information and state--if you've ever successfully installed Linux on a flash drive, and later booted it up on another body... I mean, computer... the religious concepts shouldn't pose too much of a metaphysical dilemma for you.

        So you're saying heaven is filled with millions of USB thumb drives? That is one of the least interesting visions of the afterlife I've eer come across.

        • by Empiric (675968)

          Very ergonomically designed, and responsive, too.

          Oh wait. Were still doing analogy.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:08PM (#39444997)

    but then they slept on it and forgot

  • If the tiniest amount of storage is on molecular level, the total capacity of "memory" of a person is HUGE.
    • by Baloroth (2370816)

      I think the estimates are somewhere are in the petabytes in magnitude (best exact figure I can find is 2.5 petabytes, in Scientific America a few years ago). So yes, quite a lot. But as the summary says, the process isn't fully understood.

  • I dig how the title for this article, at least, sounds as though researchers stumbled across a working hypothesis...as though scientific hypotheses are hit upon like a rock in the road.

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:16PM (#39445083)

    A memory can theoretically remain longer than synaptic connections. If a memory is important enough you memorize it again when you remember it, and store it in a different location. Doing this from time to time can help bypass the duration limit.

    • Short term memory seems to be electrical and long-term chemical. This article seems to support this hypothesis, showing the connection between statically-charged connections between molecules within the synaptic structure.

      Whether the location of the electrically-bonded connections changes or not, the chemistry will reconstruct the electrical charges of the original memory. more or less.

    • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

      PTSD treatments include re-living the memory with small changes, like being aware that you are in a safe environment. You remember, modifying the memory and putting it back changed. A few courses later, the memory is not as strong, or doesn't trigger PTSD for some other reason.

      Memory is hardly a secure, safe storage mechanism. It's almost quantum - doing anything to it can change it. Or you can remember things that never happened.

      So yeah, you can bypass the duration limit, but at the risk of data loss.

      • by Hentes (2461350)

        True, I'm pretty sure that those memories that "last for a lifetime" have deteriorated severely, and bear little resemblance to the original one.

  • by RichMan (8097) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:19PM (#39445109)

    Pick one
    a) therapy, erasing bad memories
    b) therapy, implanting good memories
    c) health, perserving function
    d) personal, perserving cherished memories
    e) learning
    f) porn

    Place your bets!!

    • by EdZ (755139)
      "Your original memory will never by fully restored, there might be residual simulation; we don't have the technology yet to handle simex erasures. I'm sorry."
    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      e) learning

      I remember a Calvin & Hobbes strip where a robot doctor implants grey matter into Calvin's brain. "Well, there's grades 1-12. Now go have 12 years of fun."

      The more complex our world becomes, the less opportunities kids have to be kids.

      • by dissy (172727)

        I remember a Calvin & Hobbes strip where a robot doctor implants grey matter into Calvin's brain. "Well, there's grades 1-12. Now go have 12 years of fun."
        The more complex our world becomes, the less opportunities kids have to be kids

        Too true. Except unfortunately they will just up the minimum requirement to be 24 years or more worth of education in those 12 years.

        At least it will prepare them for corporate life, where HR demands 10 years experience with a software package that has only existed for 4 years before they will hire you.

        With any luck, by then they will have expanded the day to have more hours in it, and then the whole cycle can start anew!

    • Minor pet peeve: important biological research results don't need to be pragmatic to be very important. Science asks "Why", it doesn't just ask "Knowing this, what can I get out of it?" The structure of DNA was not immediately used to cure diseases. Knowing that E=MC squared was important for reasons beyond "Great! Now we can REALLY blow up our enemies!"

      This is a problem these days with basic biological research and probably all basic research: people are taking a short-term, "what can we do with it"
    • those brain butchers?
    • by artor3 (1344997)

      Wait, what's the difference between b & f?

    • by X86Daddy (446356)

      (g) The government will use this to perform extra-advanced interrogations on everyone who might know about terror, drug sales and distribution, and on women who report an ambiguous rape so that they can have an abortion in the few states that keep a rape exception in the next few years.

  • My mind is blown (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DaleGlass (1068434) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:27PM (#39445207) Homepage

    I took a look at the paper in case I managed to understand something, and came across this:

    Information Storage Capacity

    If each extended kinase can either phosphorylate at the S-T site on a tubulin substrate, or not, the process effectively conveys one bit of information (e.g. no phosphorylation = 0, phosphorylation = 1). Each set of six extended kinases on either side of a CaMKII holoenzyme can thus act collectively as 6 bits of information. Ordered arrays of bits are termed âbytesâ(TM).
    [...]

    Logic Gates

    Clusters of phosphorylated tubulin, and/or MAP attachment may serve as logic gates for propagating information. Figures 9 and 10 demonstrate two types of Boolean logic gates, an AND gate and an exclusive OR gate (XOR) in which MAPs convey inputs, with output along tubulin pathways. Figures 11 and 12 show AND and XOR gates in which MAPs convey output of inputs and processes in tubulins within the MT. The combination of XOR and AND logic gates forms a universal set for computation in which all other logic gates (NOT, OR etc.) can be conceived. Signals propagating through MT-MAP logic circuits may extend throughout cytoskeletal networks, regulating synaptic function, cognition and behavior.

    Whoa. If that research is correct then that's really amazing.

    • by tgv (254536)

      I, for one, welcome our new logic overlords.

      O wait, that's us!

    • by Twinbee (767046)
      If they read the paper (or hired an expert to read it, and summarize it to them), they would have had a much better story ("Humans are computers!"), and would have probably driven much more traffic to their site. It's weird that didn't happen...
    • This research implies that long term storage is digital and has the ability to be manipulated by logic constructs familiar to at least some of us who work with computers and similar machines. That's an interesting statement. Their hypothesis centers on a protein that works on tubulin (a common structural protein that makes, wait for it, tubes) and that this represents the 'logic framework' for memory storage.

      Aside from the 'it's full of tubes' attempt at humor, it's a striking hypothesis and probably wron

    • by sunwolf (853208)
      This reddit comment [reddit.com] seems to debunk the foundations of the paper. TL;DR copied below:

      TL;DR The experiment has nothing to do with memory as most neuroscientists and psychologists understand it. However, it's much easier to make unsupported statements in a press release than in the peer-review process. The author of the article fell for the press release of a lab known for making outrageous statements.

  • FTA...

    “This could open up amazing new possibilities of dealing with memory loss problems, interfacing our brains with hybrid devices to augment and 'refresh' our memories,” said Tuszynski. “More importantly, it could lead to new therapeutic and preventive ways of dealing with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia, whose incidence is growing very rapidly these days.”

    Not to mention "the black shakes".
    But I don't think we'll see anything useful come from this research, because everybody knows that socialist medicine (like they have in Canada) is second rate. To really come up with a profitable, er... effective cure, you need capitalism involved.

  • by Rodness (168429) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:37PM (#39445293)

    How much will it cost me to remember being an invincible secret agent on Mars??

    • How much will it cost me to remember being an invincible secret agent on Mars??

      <pedantic>That's nothing, I want to remember how I saved Mankind from an alien invasion while I was a kid. Just by being kind to them.</pedantic>

  • by InfiniteZero (587028) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @05:49PM (#39445423)

    Well, the religious types will tell you there is also a backup copy stored somewhere, somehow in the cloud, literally.

  • It's been obvious to me that we store memories in tiny little flash drives embedded in our brain. Sometimes they go bad, and then we get getstuckget stuck and files don'tloadloadloadfilesystemcorrupt

    Drugs: don't do 'em, kids.

  • Well, that's good news, but what I want to know is...can they find my confounded car keys!

  • by neurophil12 (1054552) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @06:22PM (#39445721)

    "Now, a team of scientists believe that they may have figured out what's going on. Their findings could have huge implications for the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's."

    This statement is utterly absurd, but the authors of the PLoS article appear to have done some important work here. I'm not a physicist and can't evaluate the quality of the modeling and measurement, but assuming that is all legitimate (and I have no reason to doubt it), then their findings could prove useful to furthering theories on memory formation and stability. Basically they found a series of potential mechanisms by which activated CAMKII (via synaptic activity) can interface with microtubules to update their phosphorylation states. In what I would consider heavy speculation, they suggest that these phosphorylation states, along with the structural and electrostatic properties of microtubules, can produce and modulate information processing along/within the microtubules.

    Keeping Occam's Razor in mind, to me it would be simpler if these interactions simply increase or decrease microtubule stability, and possibly affect shape to promote dendritic bifurcation versus elongation or retraction. Not to say some kind of information processing can't be happening in the microtubules, but we already have some pretty good theories regarding information processing in dendrites based on membrane voltage propagation. With changes in microtubule phosphorylation state there is also the possibility of making cross-linking tighter or looser, making it possible to fit in more or fewer microtubules and change a dendrite's diameter. All of these changes are important for signal processing, but by impacting the propagation properties of the membrane rather than through the microtubules directly. I base these comments on other research that have found changes in dendrite morphology and physiology concurrent with synaptic plasticity. One must always keep in mind though that anything as complex as memory is going to rely on multiple mechanisms. Any claim that "the mechanism for X" has been found is always hyperbole.

    I would say that some of that speculation, as well as the fact that this is all highly theoretical (no experimental work) are the major reasons this wasn't published in a journal like Nature or Science. Still PLoS Computational Biology often has some very good and important articles.

    • Tubulin is a major structural protein, so manipulating it may allow you to create 'memory structures' whatever they may be. However, my reading of TFA is that it's the logic information held by the kinase by way of the degrees of phosphorylation on the molecule that actually encodes the data.

      As you say, very speculative but interesting. I'm sure there are experimental systems with mutations in both the kinase and tubulins - that should offer some experimental avenues to look into this.

    • by dzfoo (772245)

      Somebody, quick, mod this post Informational!!

            dZ.

      P.S. Thanks for the great overview and insightful perspective.

  • by um... Lucas (13147) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @06:26PM (#39445767) Journal

    this brings us many steps closer to Total Recall!

    Two weeks... two weeks... two weeks.... two weeks...

  • Better article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Derek Pomery (2028) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @06:27PM (#39445777)

    http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-03-memories-encoded-brains.html [medicalxpress.com]

    Q&A with the researcher. Bit more detail than GizMag.

    http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002421 [ploscompbiol.org]

    The paper (gizmag links to it too)

  • I suspected it all along ....
  • I just hope it isn't encoded in WMV or something, or we'll all end up paying royalties for the images in our heads.

  • Bad Title (Score:5, Informative)

    by SoftwareArtist (1472499) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @06:41PM (#39445881)

    What they've actually proposed is a mechanism for how memories are stored, not how they're encoded. The question is, how can memories be so stable if they're made up of synaptic connections that are constantly changing? These authors have proposed an answer, a molecular description of a much more stable link between two neurons that could form and then remain fixed for years. If they're right, it's a very important advance. But encoding is a completely different question: how does a particular memory get represented as a set of those connections. This work says nothing about that.

    To give an analogy, they've described the magnetic domains on a hard disk. They haven't described how JPEG transforms images into patterns of bits.

    • by khakipuce (625944)

      Damn, just used up my mod points otherwise I would have modded you up.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      They've proposed that memories are stored in binary, in six bit bytes. That is at least part of the encoding.

  • by TheSync (5291) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @07:23PM (#39446205) Journal
    From the actual scientific article [ploscompbiol.org]:
    In long-term potentiation (LTP), a cellular and molecular model for memory, post-synaptic calcium ion (Ca2+) flux activates the hexagonal Ca2+-calmodulin dependent kinase II (CaMKII), a dodacameric holoenzyme containing 2 hexagonal sets of 6 kinase domains. Each kinase domain can either phosphorylate substrate proteins, or not (i.e. encoding one bit). Thus each set of extended CaMKII kinases can potentially encode synaptic Ca2+ information via phosphorylation as ordered arrays of binary "bits"...
    ...this suggests sets of six CaMKII kinase domains phosphorylate hexagonal MT lattice neighborhoods collectively, e.g. conveying synaptic information as ordered arrays of six "bits", and thus "bytes", with 64 to 5,281 possible bit states per CaMKII-MT byte...
  • Stuart Hameroff is an organizer of this conference [arizona.edu], which I'm sure this research was timed for release just before. Stuart [quantumconsciousness.org] has long been an advocate of a theory he developed with Roger Penrose [st-andrews.ac.uk] in which the microtubules are the brain's interface with the quantum [quantumconsciousness.org].

  • .... are little endian. Some are big endian.

  • by JRHelgeson (576325) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @10:19PM (#39447293) Homepage Journal

    The Spirit that inhabits your body, that is the recording medium. When you die, you take all those memories and everything you've learned with you. It's really quite simple. The spirit is the recording medium, and the the human brain is the spiritual to physical interface adapter.

    Essentially, those neurons are nothing more than your hard drive cable. The scientists can see the data traveling down the cable, then they can see the data traveling back, then they wonder... 'hmm, how on EARTH does this cable store so much data?' It would all be so much easier to understand if they would just acknowledge the existence of a hard drive.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is an interesting conjectgure, but fallacious. There are probably between 80 and 120 billion bit-neurons in the human brain, and a finitely non-discrete number of synapses, all of which act as de facto logic gates/memory bits. Since the brain is constantly purging anything it finds irrelevant, and since it has mechanisms for reconstructing meaningful memories from very limited data, there's no reason to assume that this massive memory-loaded processor has to have some (essentially) off-site location fo

    • by swell (195815) <.moc.citeop. .ta. .kcowrebbaj.> on Friday March 23, 2012 @02:06AM (#39448207)

      Billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connectors can not explain the miracle of memory, learning or inspiration. The higher function of the brain is to connect us with the infinite found in another dimension. There it connects with a storehouse of information and wisdom partly shared with others.

      Given sufficient energy, the brain accesses this storehouse more or less efficiently and produces results that lead to intelligence and success in navigating what we perceive as the world around us.

      It would be premature at this time to introduce the idea that this storehouse is shared with brains on other worlds, but it's worth considering for those with hyper connectivity.

    • by nut (19435)

      As funny as this mysticism clearly sounds to some, there are theories that some human memories are stored, "in the cloud" - when they are stored socially.

      I have read ( but can't now find the reference :-( ) studies where groups of people have been asked to remember details from long stories, complex scenes, collections of objects etc.

      One person will be the subject of the studies, the others will be actors. The actors 'remember' details that were definitely false - a red ball being blue for example, and repo

  • That cheesy song that you can't get out of your head... that's right... FOREVER!
  • Why does every discovery about the brain article end with 'This could lead to a new Alzheimer's treatment'? Alzheimer's is a terrible disease and the relatives of sufferers may be interested, but surely a larger segment of people looked at this article and went "I know Kung-Fu!"

All this wheeling and dealing around, why, it isn't for money, it's for fun. Money's just the way we keep score. -- Henry Tyroon

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