For over a century, neuroscience has believed that memories are stored in the synapse of neurons. This thinking has driven efforts to treat mental illnesses like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Alzheimer’s. Findings from a recent study could potentially shake up all of this. Scientists at UCLA have found evidence suggesting that memories are not actually stored in the synapse and could possibly be located in the nucleus of the neuron.
The study, led by David Glanzman, focused on neural activity in a mollusk called Aplysia after it was given pulses in its tail. The Aplysia were put into groups and given the pulses. Then, after 24 hours, they were either given more pulses, nothing at all, or a blockade that should prevent the memory from coming back. In order to find out whether the Aplysia still had the memories of the pulses and how strong they were, the scientists looked at the varicosities in the neuron’s synapse. Varicosities are areas that react to the pulses. Glanzman’s team then ran two more experiments; one with another blockade and one with a blockade and more shocks to see if a memory could be “brought back”. The expectation was that the amount of varicosities would go up with the amount of pulses and that the varicosities that were made by the pulses would stay there.
Surprisingly, not all of the scientists’ expectations were met. The Aplysia that received two rounds of shocks had more varicosities. Ones that received either the blockade or nothing kept the same amount. This was expected but what the scientists did not see coming was the varicosities not staying in the same place. Some new ones formed and ones that were there for the first measurement disappeared. The second experiment followed the same pattern and the third experiment gave Glanzman’s team another perplexing result. Even when the Aplysia were given the blockade, memories of the previous pulses could be triggered by more pulses. None of these findings were consistent with the accepted theory that memories were stored in the synapse. This led the scientists to believe that 100 plus years of thinking could possibly be wrong. Memories may not be stored in the synapse.
Now while these findings could mean big changes in neuroscience, the experiment does not allow for causal claims. Before anything can be set in stone, more testing must be done and testing must be done on the human brain. To the scientists’ credit, this was acknowledged and they said there would be more experimentation to come.
There is a long way to go before it can be proven that memories are not in the synapse but imagine the implications if it is. Treatment for PTSD and Alzheimer’s is based off of the thinking that memories are stored in the synapse. This could change everything about how these illnesses are handled. New, more effective treatments will come out for those suffering. People will get their lives back, families will get their loved ones back. And on the negative side, people will have thrown away loads of money based off of false thinking. If Glanzman and his team are correct, their findings have the power to change science.
This project gave me a lot of insight into what being a journalist really is. There is so much more that goes into writing an article that I previously thought. Along with just summarizing something, there are deadlines and restrictions. All of that just adds stress. For me, the words restriction was the hardest to overcome. The article I found was a little over 550 words and it seemed like there would not be a problem at all. Then I started typing and came up on my restriction pretty quickly. I had to go back and really make my word use more efficient and that was really hard. In the end, I was able to get all of the information I wanted in but there were some details left out in the process. Most of the information that was left out had to do with the procedure of the experiment. There were a lot of steps taken in each procedure. I felt like I could leave them out because they were not very controversial steps and I thought I was able to give the reader a good understanding of what was happening even without those steps. What the findings of the experiment meant were the most important to me and leaving out the steps in the procedure gave me the space I wanted to talk about the findings. This project has not really changed how I see journalism but it does give me a new respect for it. The writing itself is not that difficult but what did it for me was the decision making. You need to think long and hard about what you need the reader to see and how you can do that given your restrictions. I can honestly say I was not prepared for that aspect but working through it was pretty eye-opening.