Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Foreign Policy reviews the year

One of the reasons I started this blog was to recall moments in our collective life that have quickly passed m thought. Haven't kept too true to that, but luckily, Foreign Policy has done a much better recap than I ever could.

How many of these moments have slipped from your mind already? 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Brain's Memory "Buffer"

It's ironic but appropriate that I don't remember how I happened upon this  article on scientific research into the cellular differences between short term and long term memory storage. The newspaper is called The Hindu, and so it's not one that I come across in my normal web wandering.

It's probably more informative to read the article, but just to move this info from my short term memory to something a little longer, I'll summarize by saying that scientists have found evidence that short term memory is held in single nerve cells in the front of the brain, for a minute or longer. "Permanent" memory (to me a dubious concept) is formed when the amino acid glutamate stimulates nerve cells in the brain to reorganize and strenghten their connections with each other. But this process takes time and is to slow to deal with rapidly incoming information--as what isn't these days?

Enter metabotropic glutamate transmission. A rapid fire signal stimulates single cells to be temporary storage for moment to moment information. The example the article uses is that of a card shark counting cards in a game of blackjack. This would seem an oddly random example, except it goes on to say that casinos have figured out that it the type of memory that is most sensitive to disruption by alcohol and noisy distraction.

"It's more like RAM [random access memory] on a computer than memory stored on a disk," Dr. (Don) Cooper said. "The memory on the disk is more permanent and you can go back and access the same information repeatedly. RAM memory is rewritable temporary storage that allows multitasking." 

The researchers also did experiments on mice to see how these findings work with addiction. Apparently, a neurochemical called dopamine is what helps focus attention and make fast decisions, but after mice were given repeated doses of cocaine to simulate addiction, the  short term memeory "buffer" cells were no longer
as easily stimulated. Even adding dopamine after did not have the effect of focussing the mice's thought processes.

"If we can identify and manipulate the molecular components of memory, we can develop drugs that boost the ability to maintain this memory trace to hopefully allow a person to complete tasks without being distracted," Dr. Cooper said. "For the person addicted to drugs, we could strengthen this part of the brain involved with decision-making, allowing them to ignore impulses and weigh negative consequences of their behavior before they abuse drugs."

Maybe, maybe not. As usual with these things, though, I mainly feel sorry for the mice.