What is an anti-memory? An evil memory mastermind hellbent on total brain domination? Thankfully, no. Anti-memories are more like anti-matter particles in physics. Except they won’t make your head explode and the Starship Enterprise wouldn’t get very far on them…
What are anti-memories? A proper answer…
We already know that the brain forgets as much as it can to to stay sane. Yet we can still carry a lifetime’s worth of memories with us. These memories can be linked together to a varying degree. When we learn or make a new memory, we make new connections between neurons. Each time we remember this information or memory we strengthen these connections. This makes it easier to remember in the future. Your brain determines which memories are important by judging how many times you remember them.
These connections are made by two different types of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that relay signals between neurons. Some neurotransmitters are called excitatory, because they excite electrical activity between neurons. Normally, the voltage of a neuron is balanced, indicating that something must also be able to dampen down these electrical signals.
The second type of neurotransmitter is inhibitory, so called because inhibitory transmitters inhibit the electrical activity. So the excitation and inhibition balance each other out leaving our neurons basking in a zen-like state of electrical tranquility. Sort of.
Neurotransmitters are created by two types of neurons, creatively called inhibitory and excitatory. Following me so far?
When we are forming new memories, we disrupt this balance. New connections are being made and/or strengthened. Excitatory neurons secrete excitatory neurotransmitters that strengthen the excitatory connections between neurons. This could be a problem.
Memories are complex and can involve many parts of the brain. Think of all the things that can trigger memories: a certain smell, a song or a sound, pretty much anything that we look at … Also, memories are connected. Remembering something about a friend can trigger other memories about different friends or other times. Pretty soon your brain could be shooting out electrical impulses all over the place. Bye bye excitatory/inhibitory balance! So what does the brain use to stop this runaway “short-circuit” ? How do we get balanced again?
A paper published in the journal Neuron by Dr Helen Barron and colleagues of the University of Oxford set to find out. Based on earlier experiments on rats, they hypothesized that when excitatory connections are strengthen then inhibitory connections must also be strengthened. These changes in the connections must be identical to the memories, hence the name anti-memories.
So when memories are created or remembered they trigger a lot of electrical and chemical activities in various parts of the brain. Soon after, these activities are reversed by mirror images of the memories. Thus the brain returns to a balanced state once again.
Anti-memories and an unbalanced brain
At least that’s what happens in a healthy brain. But certain mental conditions are thought to be caused by unregulated excitatory brain activity. Epilepsy is an example when electrical activity in the brain can go out of control. Schizophrenia and autism are two other conditions. This research may open new avenues to explore treatments for these conditions.
Testing what is going on in the brain at this level is very difficult. The science is a bit heavy so I’ll let Dr. Barron explain her experiment in the video below.
So, how balanced do you think your brain is?
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