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New theory chalenges current view of how brain stores long-term memory

How do you remember your own name? Is it possible ever to forget it? The memory trace, or engram, "feels" like it is stored permanently in the brain and it will never be forgotten.

Indeed, the current view of memory is that, at the molecular level, new proteins are manufactured, in a process known as translation, and it is these newly synthesized proteins that subsequently stabilize the changes underlying the memory. Thus, every new memory results in a permanent representation in the brain.

But Northwestern University neuroscientist Aryeh Routtenberg has presented a provocative new theory that takes issue with that view. Routtenberg, with doctoral student Jerome L. Rekart, outlined the new theory on memory storage in the January issue of the journal Trends in Neuroscience.

Rather than permanent storage, there is a "dynamic, meta-stable" process, the authors said. Our subjective experience of permanence is a result of the re-duplication of memories across many different brain networks.

For example, one's name is represented in innumerable neural circuits; thus, it is extremely difficult to forget. But each individual component is malleable and transient, and as no particular neural network lasts a lifetime, it is theoretically possible to forget one's own name.

This is seen in the most advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, the researchers stated.

The advantage of such a precarious storage mechanism is that it is a highly flexible system, enabling rapid retrieval even of infrequent elements, with great advantages over models of permanent storage, said Routtenberg, professor in the department of psychology and in the department of neurobiology and physiology, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a leading researcher in the Institute for Neuroscience, Northwestern University.

To achieve this high degree of flexibility, Routtenberg's new theory goes on to propose tha
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Contact: Elizabeth Crown
e-crown@northwestern.edu
312-503-8928
Northwestern University
14-Jan-2005


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