How Does Memory Work?
We tend to think our memory works like a filing cabinet. We experience an event, generate a memory and then file it away for later use. However, according to medical research, the basic mechanisms behind memory are much more dynamic. In fact, making memories is similar to plugging your laptop into an Ethernet cable—the strength of the network determines how the event is translated within your brain.
Neurons (nerve cells in the brain) communicate through synaptic connections (structures that pass a signal from neuron-to-neuron) that “talk” to each other when certain neurotransmitters (chemicals that allow the transmission of these signals) are present.
Think of a neurotransmitter as an email. If you’re busy and you receive one or two emails, you might ignore them. But, if you are bombarded with hundreds of emails from the same person, saying basically the same thing, all at the same time, you will likely begin to pay attention and start a conversation with the sender: Why on earth are you sending me all these emails?
Similarly, neurons only open a line of communication with each other when they receive stimulation from several of the same neurotransmitters at once: Oh, my neighbor keeps hitting me with the same signal? I better talk to them! So, how exactly does this relate to memory? It’s the strength of these connections between neurons that determines how a memory is formed.
“The persistent strengthening of these activated synapses (connections) between neurons is called long-term potentiation (LTP),” said William Griffith, Ph.D., a cellular neuroscientist and chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. “LTP is the most recognized cellular mechanism to explain memory because it can alter the strength between brain cell connections. If this strength is maintained, a memory can be formed.”
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