Scientists might be able to restore lost memories (!)

A new study’s found that how scientists have been thinking about memory is all wrong – and we may actually be able to restore them when they’re lost. For a long time, neuroscientists thought that the connections between brain cells, known as synapses, were where memory was located.

But researchers from UCLA have found that long-term memories are formed by proteins that create new synapses, with the memories themselves stored in the nervous system. That means that if a synapse is destroyed or dies (as happens in Alzheimer’s disease, for example), there’s the potential for the memories associated with it to be recovered.

They found this out by doing experiments on snails that sound a little like something from the CIA’s torture report, administering light shocks to their tails for several days, training them to develop an unpleasant long-term memory (which could be tested by the strength of its defensive response). They then blocked the synapses where this should have been stored, and shocked the snails again.

If conventional neuroscience wisdom had prevailed, the snails should have had no defensive response, because the synapse would have been the only source of the memory. But the snails did try to withdraw before the shock was administered (poor things), meaning that they did remember their abuse, and those memories had to be stored somewhere other than the synapses. Lab tests of snail brain cells showed they were able to regrow synaptic connections.

Now, obviously, humans and snails don’t have a huge amount in common… but apparently their memory process has been shown to be very similar to that of mammals, so what’s true for them is often the case for us, too. This means there could be a new source of hope for patients in the early stages of dementia as well as people who’ve experienced a stroke (who often have to re-learn how to perform everyday tasks).

We’re a way off being able to recreate the process in humans, but UCLA professor David Glanzman, a senior author of the study, says the research could provide treatments in the future: ‘The nervous system appears to be able to regenerate lost synaptic connections. If you can restore the synaptic connections, the memory will come back. It won’t be easy, but I believe it’s possible.’

Image via Pixabay.

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