How does memory work?

A region of the brain called the hippocampus is involved in fixing new memories. The hippocampus is made up of several regions (the entorhinal cortex, dentate gyrus, CA1 subfield and subiculum) that work together as a circuit in learning new memories, according to Dr. Scott Small – "the name of someone you met recently, where you put your keys, a new software program." Aging, diabetes, vascular diseases, and stroke all damage the hippocampus, but each targets a different region. Alzheimer's disease, for example, affects the entorhinal cortex, and stroke affects the CA1 subfield and the subiculum, while normal cognitive aging targets the dentate gyrus. "The early stages of Alzheimer's and normal aging look very similar using standard memory tests, though," said Dr. Small, "because they access the whole circuit. It's as though different parts of your computer are down, but the end result is the same, it's not working."

The molecular basis of memory is poorly understood. There is some evidence that changes in the shape of certain proteins can play a role. The standard laboratory model for memory is called long-term potentiation and appears to involve a process called protein phosphorylation, in which a kind of decoration, called a phosphate, is added to the protein to stabilize the shape that holds on to the memory.  There is also evidence that shape changes similar to what happens in prion disease may underlie memory.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.