According to Neuroscientist, Professor Tomás Ryan at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), we already do. Prof Ryan’s work into memory storage in the brain suggests that all learned memories are hardwired into the structure of our brain cells or neurons. Issues with memory expression arise when the pathways to retrieving these memories are disrupted. However, if you know where the memory is stored you can stimulate the seemingly broken pathway and retrieve the information. The trick is knowing where to look.
Memory is key to our success as a species, it allows us to share information across generations much faster than biological evolution will allow. It also shapes who we are and our perception of the world through insight gained from past experiences. The traditional concept of memory and memory recall can be compared to pages written in our own individual book of life. Through aging, disease or misadventure it was believed that some of the pages could be lost or torn out resulting in the permanent loss of memory. A daunting notion considering one in three of us to live over the age of 65 will experience some form of dementia.
Ground-breaking research by Professor Tomás Ryan’s at Trinity College Dublin and colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, has shed new light on this process. Results from animal studies into memory storage and recall have shown that all memories are potentially stored in the structure of the brain. They can be mapped, labelled and triggered even in an artificial state of amnesia.
To understand how this is achieved it is important to understand what memories are and how they are formed. In simple terms, memories are knowledge accumulated through a process of learning, where learning causes a material change in your brain. The structural change made by a specific memory is called an engram and these engrams are long lasting and stable.
Prof Ryan’s research describes how the physical data of a memory remains in the brain even if the pathways to retrieving the information have been damaged. For the first time, amnesia can be attributed to a deficit in memory access. The desired information, or engram, survives, the trick to restoring it is knowing where to find it. To that end the researchers have managed to fluorescently label the neuronal constellations in the brain responsible for specific memories by triggering a learning event and using fluorescently labelled dyes to map the pathways that fire during memory formation. They followed the brains own trail of breadcrumbs. They could then stimulate these specific engram cells to trigger targeted memory recall, even in cases of amnesia due to drug treatment or early Alzheimer’s disease.
While solving memory loss in humans is still a long way away, this scientific development is hugely positive. The comfort in knowing that memories are permanent features in the structure of the brain offers the hope that while amnesia is still a devastating disease the pages of our life are not destroyed merely misplaced.