Why is it that amnesia patients can't remember their names or addresses, but they do remember how to hold a fork? It's because memories come in many flavors, says Fred Helmstetter, professor of psychology at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee (UWM). Remembering what is not the same as remembering how.
"Different circuits in the brain are activated when you remember what you had for breakfast this morning versus when you fell off a bicycle in second grade," says Helmstetter, who researches the brain's regulation of memories, emotions and learning.
And it's those distinctive connections in the brain's communication network that differentiate between the "aware," or conscious, memories and the unconscious ones, some of which Helmstetter calls "emotional memories."
Selectivity is one of the many aspects of memory that intrigues him, and it's key to his research into the specific brain process that is responsible for making you aware of what you've learned or remembered.
Dissecting the mechanisms behind emotional memory is important because the region of the brain that governs this also controls fear and anxiety. That is why an emotional memory, such as a traumatic car accident, can activate the autonomic nervous system, causing bodily responses like an increase in heart rate, sweating and blood pressure even if you don't realize it.
So the research has implications for a variety of illnesses, from Alzheimer's disease to anxiety disorders.
Unraveling the differences between kinds of memories, Helmstetter believes, depends on understanding the chemical changes that happen in the brain at the molecular level.
Helmstetter's work has already shown how memories are stored in certain neurons. Now he wants to know more about the molecular players that make the brain's whole network of constantly changing memory connections possible. His extramural funding has come from sources such as the National Science
Contact: Fred Helmstetter
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee