Get psyched!


TechLife Australia - - WELCOME - [ SHARMISHTA SARKAR ]

YOU’RE RUN­NING LATE and, for the life of you, you can’t re­mem­ber where you put your keys. Ah, mem­ory... it can be so be­fud­dling — oc­ca­sion­ally work­ing mar­vel­lously well, but of­ten giv­ing you the slip.

Don’t fret: it’s not just you. The way hu­man mem­ory works is so com­pli­cated that sci­en­tists are still try­ing to fig­ure it out. What we do know is that nerve cells com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other in the pres­ence of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters (aka the chem­i­cals that fa­cil­i­tate the trans­mis­sion of neu­ral sig­nals) to process in­for­ma­tion in the brain, and the strength of these sig­nals, is what is be­lieved to be be­hind the for­ma­tion of mem­o­ries. “The per­sis­tent strength­en­ing of these ac­ti­vated synapses (con­nec­tions) be­tween neu­rons is called long-term po­ten­ti­a­tion (LTP),” ex­plains Wil­liam Grif­fith, a cel­lu­lar neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Texas A&M Health Sci­ence Cen­ter Col­lege of Medicine. “LTP is the most recog­nised cel­lu­lar mech­a­nism to ex­plain mem­ory be­cause it can al­ter the strength be­tween brain cell con­nec­tions. If this strength is main­tained, a mem­ory can be formed.”


Mem­ory is com­posed of sen­sory cues like sight and smell, mean­ing dif­fer­ent parts of the brain need to be fir­ing at the same time to summon mem­o­ries of any type, from your nana’s home­cooked meals, to how to ride a bi­cy­cle. More­over, sen­sa­tions only be­come mem­o­ries if they’re ‘en­coded’ into the brain, which is achieved us­ing chem­i­cals and elec­tri­cal im­pulses. For that, you’ll need to have been pay­ing at­ten­tion to some­thing. If you aren’t, chances are the event won’t be en­coded, and you therefore won’t have any as­so­ci­ated mem­o­ries.

Your ini­tial sen­sory per­cep­tions of an event get stored as short-term mem­ory. These per­cep­tions can be vis­ual, tac­tile, au­ral or ol­fac­tory (ie smell). Mem­o­ries can even be a com­bi­na­tion of these. Short-term mem­o­ries have an ex­piry date, but re­call them a few times and they be­come part of your long-term mem­ory. The more you re­call some­thing, the stronger the synap­tic con­nec­tions, the stronger and longer the mem­ory.


There’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mem­ory. We all deem dif­fer­ent things to be im­por­tant, so our mem­o­ries are just as se­lec­tive and var­ied as our per­son­al­i­ties. If you’ve for­got­ten where you left your keys, you ei­ther weren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion to where you left them or, when search­ing for them, there are too many dis­trac­tions around you, ham­per­ing the re­call power of the mem­ory. More­over, if one or more synap­tic con­nec­tions didn’t fire at the time of recol­lec­tion, it is pos­si­ble that those con­nec­tions can get made later, giv­ing you the prover­bial light-bulb mo­ment when you re­mem­ber where you left your keys long af­ter you’ve stopped look­ing.


Af­ter the age of 20, our brains be­gin to ex­pe­ri­ence the oc­ca­sional break­down of the mem­ory re­call pro­cesses. This is ab­so­lutely nor­mal, and in­creases in fre­quency as we get older, as age­ing causes the strength in the brain’s nerve synapses to fal­ter, af­fect­ing our abil­ity to re­mem­ber things. In fact, some ar­eas of our brain that are im­por­tant to mem­ory re­call be­come vul­ner­a­ble as we get older, like the hip­pocam­pus, which loses 5% of its cells for ev­ery decade we age. So not be­ing able to re­mem­ber a per­son’s name at a so­cial event is quite nor­mal, and may not nec­es­sar­ily be a sign of de­men­tia.


Like any other or­gan in the body, the brain un­der­goes wear-and-tear as we get older, and with­out proper ‘ex­er­cise’, the brain also suf­fers. As we men­tioned in a pre­vi­ous Get Psyched col­umn (see is­sue 67, page 19), cre­ative and in­tel­lec­tual pas­times (like read­ing and cross­word puz­zles) keep the brain fir­ing and, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the jour­nal ‘Neu­rol­ogy’ in 2013, can help to re­duce the risk of late-life cog­ni­tive de­gen­er­a­tion by up to 32%.

Along with these kinds of ‘brain work­outs’, a healthy life­style also goes a long way in keep­ing the brain tick­ing. Eat­ing the right foods (like the Mediter­ranean diet, which is known to con­tain mem­ory-boost­ing foods), plenty of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise and keep­ing reg­u­lar sleep pat­terns have also been known to have pos­i­tive ef­fects, as does keep­ing your brain hy­drated by mak­ing sure you drink enough wa­ter.

So­cial in­ter­ac­tions are known to ward off de­pres­sion and other stress fac­tors which can af­fect mem­ory re­call. So get out there and be so­cial — and we don’t mean via Face­book!

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