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Last Updated: Oct 11, 2012 - 10:22:56 PM
Memory Channel

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Latest Research : Neurosciences : Memory

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Da Memory Code, A Neurobiologist's Holy Grail?

Sep 10, 2005 - 2:47:00 PM
By examining how sounds are registered during the process of learning, UC Irvine neurobiologists have discovered a neural coding mechanism that the brain relies upon to register the intensity of memories based on the importance of the experience.

[RxPG] While neurobiologists have long hypothesized this type of neural coding, the study presents the first evidence that a "memory code" of any kind may exist. The UCI researchers believe that this code, as well as similar codes that may be discovered, will not only broaden our understanding of normal learning and memory but also may shed light on learning disorders. It may also one day be possible to manipulate these codes to control what and how we remember – not only basic sounds, but complicated information and events.

Weinberger and his colleagues found that when the brain uses this coding method, information is stored in a greater number of brain cells, which should result in a stronger memory. However, the researchers believe that if the brain fails to use the code, the resulting memory – even if it is an important one – would be weaker because fewer neurons would be involved.

"This memory code may help explain both good and poor memory," said Norman Weinberger, a professor of neurobiology and behavior in UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. "People tend to remember important experiences better than routine ones."

Weinberger and postdoctoral researcher Richard Rutkowski discovered this coding system through studying how the primary auditory cortex responds to various sounds.

In the study, the researchers trained rats to press a bar to receive water when they heard a certain tone. The tone was varied in its importance to different rats as shown by their different levels of correct performance.

After brain mapping these test rats, the researchers found that the greater the importance of the tone, the greater the area of the auditory cortex that became tuned to it. The results in rats that received the same tones but were trained to a visual stimulus did not differ from those in untrained rats, showing that the behavioral importance of the tone, not its mere presence, was the critical factor.

An increased representation of low frequencies, related to the acoustic spectrum of the reward delivery equipment, also was discovered in both experimental and control trained subjects, supporting the conclusion that behaviorally important sounds gain representational area. Furthermore, there was a surprising reduction in total AI area for the experimental and control groups, compared with untrained naive subjects, indicating that the functional dimensions of AI are not fixed. Overall, the findings support the encoding of acquired stimulus importance based on representational size in AI.

The main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory, from an information processing perspective, are:

* Encoding (processing and combining of received information)
* Storage (creation of a permanent record of the encoded information)
* Retrieval/Recall (calling back the stored information in response to some cue for use in some process or activity)

Publication: Study results appear on the Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
On the web: Freely available online through the PNAS open access option here (PDF) 

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 Additional information about the news article
Author contributions: R.G.R. and N.M.W. designed research; R.G.R. performed research; and R.G.R. and N.M.W. analyzed data and wrote the paper.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders supported the effort.

About the University of California, Irvine: Celebrating 40 years of innovation, the University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,400 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3 billion.
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