Scheme: Wolfson Research Merit Awards
Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Dates: Jan 2006-Dec 2010
Summary: Memory is fundamental to human life. Qualitatively distinct types of memory enable us to change our behaviour in response to experience, to acquire and use a repository of knowledge, to recollect events from the past, and to plan for the future. The use of memory is changing, with a great deal of human knowledge now externalised and then sought on-demand through use of search engines on the web. Nonetheless, the loss of memory remains greatly feared. The inability to recollect the events of our life can develop from a minor irritation to a condition that undermines normal existence. Given its central role in cognition, a “Grand Challenge” for neuroscience is to understand the neural mechanisms of the capacity to encode, store and retrieve information - a challenge set by the MRC and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain. There has recently been explosion of research in neuroscience that is revealing the neural mechanisms involved, including those of memory consolidation. We have learned a great deal, but there are many unsolved issues.
One unsolved problem is how distinct areas of the brain, such as the ‘hippocampus’ and the ‘neocortex’ interact to make memories. No brain area operates in isolation, as perceptual systems provide the flow of information into memory processing systems and motor systems enable the appropriate control of behaviour. Understanding the balance between independence and interdependence of brain areas is important scientifically and also fundamental for the design of drugs may aid memory in old-age or in neurodegenerative diseases.
Our approach, using a combination of different techniques to get at the neural mechanisms, has revealed two key findings. First, that the persistence of changes at the neuronal connections involves both local and cell-wide processes. Second, the brain areas interact in different ways at the time of encoding from that seen at memory retrieval.