Memories are made of this: Protein
NEW YORK TIMES
Scientists may have found a biological reason to explain why two people who witness the same event will, years later, often have different memories of what happened.
It seems that every time an old memory is pulled into consciousness, the brain takes it apart, updates it and then makes new proteins in the process of putting the memory back into long-term storage.
The fact that new proteins are made means that the memory has been transformed permanently to reflect each person’s life experiences – not the memory itself.
The finding is based on research involving a specific kind of fear memory in animals, but many experts predict that it may also hold true for other kinds of memories in humans. The discovery could lead to ways of altering or erasing people’s memories.
The research, carried out at the Centre for Neural Science at New York University, was described in the August17 issue of the journal Nature.
This was the first good neurobiological explanation of the way memories were updated, said Dr Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychology professor and a memory expert.
“It’s a mistake to think that once you record a memory, it is forever fixed,” he said.
Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who studies memory at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the research was interesting.
“We’re on the brink of being able to figure out how you might accomplish something like memory engineering,” she said, noting it might be possible to erase traumatic memories in people who were plagued by them, and to better understand how false memories were implanted into people’s minds when they were given suggestions that they wanted to believe.
It has been known for at least 100years that newly formed memories were initially unstable, said Dr Yadin Dudai, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.