Human memory: Performance linked to changes in brain structure and function

November 16, 2011

At Neuroscience 2011, researchers at the University of California, Irvine and Charité University Medicine Berlin provided insight into one of neuroscience‘s most intriguing mysteries: how the human brain learns and remembers. These studies — involving topics as diverse as musical memory, “change blindness,” and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) —  illustrate the profound influence that specific changes in either the brain‘s structure, function, or both, can have on human behavior.

Specifically, the studies showed that:

  • Two brain regions associated with personal recollections and obsessive compulsive disorder are larger in individuals with highly superior autobiographical memory, a rare condition that allows people to remember nearly every event of their lives.
  • A German cellist with severe amnesia not only performs normally on a standardized test for musical memory, he is also able to acquire new musical information. The finding suggests musical memories are stored differently than other memories in the brain.
  • The phenomenon of “change blindness,” the common inability to notice changes that occur right before our eyes, may result from a failure to consciously compare consecutive scenes, according to new research using a 100-year-old card trick.
  • A key cognitive control area of the brain functions abnormally in children with ADHD — a factor that may make it more difficult for these children to perform in school.
  • The brains of postmenopausal, middle-aged women with cognitive complaints work harder when performing a working memory task than the brains of women without such complaints — a difference that may help identify those at risk for dementia.

“This research is helping us better understand the extraordinary complexity of what goes on in the brain as we‘re absorbing, and later recalling, information of all kinds,” said Howard Eichenbaum, PhD, of Boston University, an expert on memory formation. “Such research will also help us develop more effective interventions and treatments for brain diseases and conditions that interfere with — and sometimes even destroy — our ability to learn and remember.”

Ref.: A.K. Leport, et al., Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM): An investigation of the behavioral and neuroanatomical components, Neurobio. and Behavior, 2011; Univ. of California Irvine, Irvine, CA [link]

Ref.: L.M. Martinez, et al., The fate of visual short-term memory during the time course of a magic trick, CSIC-Univ Miguel Hernandez, Sant Joan d’Alacant, Spain [link]