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The Brain Structures Memories by Time

New research has revealed that our brain stores memories by their ‘temporal context’, namely what happened before a memory and what came after.

“We need to remember not just what happened, but when,” said Liang-Tien (Frank) Hsieh, a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, Center for Neuroscience and first author on a study which looked at hippocampus (a part of the brain) activity linked to particular memories.

The experiment involved showing volunteers a series of images of animals and objects, after which they scanned their brains to monitor the activity. After the scan the volunteers were shown the images again and asked questions such as – “is this alive?” These questions stimulated the volunteers to search their memories for relevant information.

Researchers reported that when the images were shown in the exact same order as before, the volunteers responded much faster as they could anticipate the next image.

Scans of the hippocampus revealed that there were patterns of activity specific to each image, however once the order of the images was changed, they got different patterns of activity.

According to the researchers, “It turns out that when you take the image out of sequence, the pattern disappears,” Ranganath said. “For the hippocampus, context is critical, not content, and it’s fairly unique in how it pulls things together.”

The reason why it is so unique is because other parts of the brain store memories of objects that are independent of their context, noted Ranganath.

“For patients with memory problems this is a big deal,” Ranganath said. “It’s not just something that’s useful in understanding healthy memory, but allows us to understand and intervene in memory problems.”

The study has been published in the journal Neuron.

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