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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

UCSF Study Involving Thoughtful Rats Could Radically Alter Perceptions of How Brain Works

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2009 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge Nicodemus could tell you -- you can learn a lot from a rat's brain...
  • Nicodemus could tell you -- you can learn a lot from a rat's brain...
Scientists have long thought that you learn while awake -- but form long-term memories while unconscious, as the brain loops over the day's key events again and again and again, like teenagers watching an old VHS copy of Phoebe Cates' topless scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

U.C. San Francisco researchers have found the conventional wisdom may well be untrue -- though video copies of Fast Times often do get fuzzy at just that moment because the aforementioned activity weakened the film. 

Local researchers experiments with rats, featured in next month's copy of Nature Neuroscience, indicate that our long-term memories are capable of being created every waking hour -- with the emphasis on "waking." It seems there's no need to sleep on it, when it comes to forming long-term recollections.

So what happens if you don't sleep after a memorable experience? No one really knew -- "We've known the memory doesn't necessarily go away, but we haven't known what supported memory formation in such cases," said Professor Loren M. Frank, the study's senior author.

Frank and his team observed rats as they sniffed and scampered their way through the days. The scientists observed the activity in the rats' hippocampuses -- the brain's memory center for the sake of brevity -- when the creatures were either out roaming around or dozing in bed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers noted that, during the rats' waking hours, they were constantly replaying memories of events that took place roughly half an hour earlier.

Also surprisingly, the "neural replays" recorded during waking hours were more accurate -- that is, the replays more closely resembled the original reading -- during waking hours than in slumber. What's more, the waking experiences often involved experiences the rats had while in a completely different setting -- meaning "elements of past experience are

constantly being reactivated as we go about our daily lives,

independent of incoming sensory information," according to Frank.

Here's where we get to the practical implications: If scientists can block out or play up the creation of selected memories, it could be possible to snuff out horrific recollections associated with conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- or, for that matter, render Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a documentary ... but we digress. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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