Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You Are What You Remember: Seeing Memories Form

For the first time ever, researchers have literally seen memories form in a brain. While the little aphorism in my title is overly broad, there is truth behind it, since the formation of memories (learning) is accomplished by changing the shape of the synaptic connections in certain regions of the brain.

Scientists at UC Irvine, led by Gary Lynch, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, have succeeded in viewing "the physical substrate, the ‘face,’ of newly encoded memory."

Working with advanced microscopic techniques called restorative deconvolution microscopy, the UC Irvine team found that the LTP-related markers appear during learning and are associated with expanded synapses in the hippocampus. Because the size of a synapse relates to its effectiveness in transmitting messages between neurons, the new results indicate that learning improves communication between particular groups of brain cells.

The findings open the way for one of the great objectives of the life sciences: mapping the distribution of memory across brain regions. The quest for the location of memory traces, or “engrams” as they are often called, preoccupied researchers for much of the 20th century but failed because there was no way to tag synapses modified by recent learning. The new results from the UC Irvine studies remove this obstacle.

Seeing the actual formation of memories is a huge step forward towards the eventual scanning and mapping of the contents of a human brain. Who we are as individuals is encoded in the physical structure and shape of our synaptic connections, along with the strength of those connections. Everything you know or have ever experienced, everything you are, will someday be containable and transferable within and between computer substrates.

We'll see how important regular backups are then.


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