Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Insights into the Mysteries of How Memory Works ; Scientists Who Are Trying to Understand How the Brain Works Get a Boost

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Insights into the Mysteries of How Memory Works ; Scientists Who Are Trying to Understand How the Brain Works Get a Boost

Article excerpt

In a major breakthrough in brain science, a team of Swiss researchers has captured a picture of what goes on between brain cells when they form a memory.

Reconstructed from electron microscope data, the unprecedented images are a mighty step in the field of neuroscience. The brain remains one of the least understood areas of bodily research, and memory one of its most mysterious processes.

The discovery could help scientists develop treatments of brain disorders. But it also holds significance for one of the hottest areas of computer science today: information processing through so- called neural networks.

The brain has more to teach engineers about this subject than their textbooks do, said Chris Wilkinson and Adam Curtis, neuroelectronic scientists at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, in a recent review in Physics World.

"The human nervous system and brain form what is undoubtedly the most powerful, complex, and least understood signal-processing network in the universe," they said.

This is complicated stuff

Indeed, the complexity of the human brain is daunting. It has 100 billion cells called neurons, and each of these can link with surrounding neurons in as many as 10,000 ways. But when it comes to memory, only a few dozen links, called synapses, make the critical connections.

It has taken neuroscientists a long time to find those connections, let alone figure out how they lock in memory.

The new images, made by D. Dominique Muller and colleagues at the Universities of Bern and Geneva in Switzerland and published yesterday in the journal Nature, show one long-suspected mechanism.

They confirm, for the first time, that neurons lock in memory by strengthening the structural connections between them.

Specifically, they show how two rat brain neurons start out with one connection - one synapse. Within an hour of the original memory- forming stimulus, another of the suction-cup-like synapses has appeared.

It's the discovery of this doubling, which strengthens the memory linkage, that the Swiss announcement calls "a breakthrough in the understanding of brain functioning."

Neurobiologist John Lisman at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. …

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