By reversing the premise used in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, UCL researchers established that the memory of an event is spread across different areas of the brain such as the hippocampus and the olfactory cortex - the smell gateway of the brain.
In Proust's story, protagonist Charles Swann is transported back to his childhood when the smell of a biscuit dipped in tea triggers memories from his past.
Dr Jay Gottfried and colleagues at UCL's Institute of Neurology set up an experiment to establish whether this mechanism could be reversed, i.e. that memories would reawaken the smell-sensitive regions of the brain. The study is published in the latest issue of Neuron.
A group of volunteers was asked to create stories or links between pictures of objects and various different smells. When the volunteers were later shown pictures of the same objects, their piriform (olfactory) cortex was re-activated even though the smell was no longer present.
Dr Jay Gottfried explains: "Our study suggests that, rather than clumping together the sights, sounds and smells of a memory into one bit of the brain, the memory is distributed across different areas and can be re-awakened through just one of our sensory channels. This mechanism would allow human beings more flexibility in retrieving their memories."
"For example, let's say you spent an enjoyable evening in a nice restaurant and ate a delicious steak. Now, if the memory of this evening was packaged into a single area of the brain, then major aspects of the original evening m
Contact: Jenny Gimpel
University College London