Two years ago, MIT neuroscientists discovered that under certain types of retrograde amnesia, memories of a particular event could be stored in the brain even though they could not be retrieved through natural recall cues. This phenomenon suggests that existing models of memory formation need to be revised, as the researchers propose in a new paper in which they further detail how these “silent engrams” are formed and re-activated.
The researchers believe their findings offer evidence that memory storage does not rely on the strengthening of connections, or “synapses,” between memory cells, as has long been thought. Instead, a pattern of connections that form between these cells during the first few minutes after an event occurs are sufficient to store a memory.
“One of our main conclusions in this study is that a specific memory is stored in a specific pattern of connectivity between engram cell ensembles that lie along an anatomical pathway. This conclusion is provocative because the dogma has been that a memory is instead stored by synaptic strength,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, the director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and the study’s senior author.
The researchers also showed that even though memories held by silent engrams cannot be naturally recalled, the memories persist for at least a week and can be “awakened” days later by treating cells with a protein that stimulates synapse formation.
Dheeraj Roy, a recent MIT PhD recipient, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Oct. 23. Other authors are MIT postdoc Shruti Muralidhar and technical associate Lillian Smith.