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Knowledge Update

'Lost' memories can indeed be retrieved: Scientists

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New York, March 17 (IANS) In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, patients are often unable to remember recent experiences. However, a significant research suggests that those memories are still stored in the brain and can be retrieved with a new technique in the near future.

According to neuroscientists including an Indian-origin scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), mice in the early stages of Alzheimer's can form new memories just as well as normal mice but cannot recall them a few days later.Furthermore, the researchers were able to artificially stimulate those memories using a technique known as optogenetics, suggesting that those memories can still be retrieved with a little help. Although optogenetics cannot currently be used in humans, the findings raise the possibility of developing future treatments that might reverse some of the memory loss seen in early stage Alzheimer's.

“The important point is that this is a proof of concept. That is, even if a memory seems to be gone, it is still there. It's a matter of how to retrieve it,” said Susumu Tonegawa, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.Tonegawa is the senior author of the study which appeared in the journal Nature, and Dheeraj Roy, an MIT graduate student, is the paper's lead author.

The researchers have also shown that they can manipulate these memory traces or engrams to plant false memories, activate existing memories, or alter a memory's emotional associations.To investigate this further, the researchers studied two different strains of mice genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer's symptoms along with a group of healthy mice.All of these mice, when exposed to a chamber where they received a foot shock, showed fear when placed in the same chamber an hour later. However, when placed in the chamber again several days later, only the normal mice still showed fear. 

The Alzheimer's mice did not appear to remember the foot shock.

"Short-term memory seems to be normal, on the order of hours. But for long-term memory, these early Alzheimer's mice seem to be impaired," Roy said.

The researchers then showed that while the mice cannot recall their experiences when prompted by natural cues, those memories are still there.
“Directly activating the cells that we believe are holding the memory gets them to retrieve it," Roy noted, adding that “this suggests that it is indeed an access problem to the information, not that they're unable to learn or store this memory”.
“If we want to recall a memory, the memory-holding cells have to be reactivated by the correct cue. If the spine density does not go up during learning process, then later, if you give a natural recall cue, it may not be able to reach the nucleus of the engram cells," Tonegawa explained.
The researchers were also able to induce a longer-term reactivation of the "lost" memories by stimulating new connections between the entorhinal cortex region of the brain and the hippocampus.

“It's possible that in the future some technology will be developed to activate or inactivate cells deep inside the brain, like the hippocampus or entorhinal cortex, with more precision," Tonegawa added.​