Mysteries of Memory - What Happened Week


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to what Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore might have you believe, memory loss isn’t always the basis of a quirky romantic comedy as it’s portrayed in 50 First Dates. Like many brain injuries, the effect it has on every person can vary.

Amnesia also doesn’t have a set of definite rules as with Barrymore’s character who could only retain memories until she fell asleep and then her brain restarted back to the day of her injury. Scientists have found that musicians who lose part or all of the memory can still retain some of their musical memories.

Clive Wearing, a British conductor and musician, contracted a brain infection in 1985 that left him with a memory span of only 10 seconds. However, despite not being able to remember anything moments after it happened, his musical ability and memory were mostly unaffected.

Scientists believe that the phenomenon, which was also witnessed in a German cellist in 2005, can be attributed to musical memory being stored in a different part of the brain than other memories. But, there is still much to be discovered about the brain, and especially how memory works within the brain.

That’s where BRAIN comes in. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced that his 2014 budget would include $100 million for a brain mapping initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN.) The government’s medical research agency, the National Institutes of Health, is overseeing the development of the initiative.

Although Congress will make the final decision, scientists are already talking about how brain mapping will benefit medical research.

Dr. Walter Koroshetz, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, tells BTR that understanding the brain has been the “holy grail” for as long as neuroscience has existed.

Dr. Koroshetz says brain mapping will also lead to a greater understanding of how memory works since scientists aren’t sure how even our simplest memories are formed.

“We know there are certain areas of the brain that are essential to form memories, but we think that there’s some type of distributed circuit that is involved in memory as well, and that’s been harder to pin down,” says Dr. Koroshetz.

Although scientists have conducted experiments where they recorded what happens in brain cells when memories are created, it is seeing the bigger picture — how different sections of the brain interact at these moments – that will lead to more understanding of how memory works, Dr. Koroshetz explains.

If we can understand exactly how memories are created, then it will be easier to understand what happens to the brain when those memories are lost. Of course, there are also different types and causes of amnesia.

There is disease-related amnesia, such as the memory loss associated with epilepsy, stroke, Alzheimer’s, etc. Then there is memory loss in connection with traumatic brain injuries; all not to be confused with the suppression or repression of memories related to a traumatic event.

The former two types of memory loss fall into the category of organic amnesia, while the latter is a type of functional amnesia. The DANA Foundation characterizes organic amnesia as memory loss caused by specific malfunctions of the brain, where as functional amnesia seems to result from psychological trauma.

Hal S. Wortzel and David B. Arciniegas touch on this subject in their article “Amnesia and Crime: A Neuropsychiatric Response.” Wortzel and Arciniegas state that suppressing or repressing memories of a traumatic event is different from other types of amnesia as it “demonstrates a right frontally mediated ability to inhibit access to (activation of) otherwise normal underlying memories.”

Although Dr. Koroshetz explains that BRAIN will be primarily geared toward the development of new tools, the understanding gained from the initiative might be helpful outside of the medical industry.

Wortzel and Arciniegas write that forensic psychiatric experts would need to become experts in how the brain develops and processes memories in order to assess amnesia within the context of criminal proceedings: “Conclusions not rigorously tied to the neuroscience of memory are bound to suffer from imprecision and may mislead the trier of fact.”

Though it might be a while before the BRAIN initiative uncovers all the secrets of the human brain, Dr. Koroshetz says some short-term goals could be achieved within five to 10 years. For instance, Dr. Koroshetz talks about Deep Brain Stimulation, where a neurostimulator is used to send tiny electrical signals to areas of the brain that control movement, and how it is used to help people with Parkinson’s disease.

“One could envision that a better understanding of the circuits and how to manipulate them from the kind of tools that come out of the BRAIN initiative could improve our ability to do DBS,” says Dr. Koroshetz.

For now, though, the BRAIN initiative still needs to be approved by Congress before it can really get started. But with how much is still left to be discovered about memory and the brain, it’s hard not to see the benefits of a brain mapping initiative.