MIT neuroscientists have now discovered how this occurs. A small region of the brainstem, known as the locus coeruleus, is activated in response to novel sensory stimuli, and this activity triggers the release of a flood of dopamine into a certain region of the hippocampus to store a memory of the new location.
“We have the remarkable ability to memorize some specific features of an experience in an entirely new environment, and such ability is crucial for our adaptation to the constantly changing world,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.
“This study opens an exciting avenue of research into the circuit mechanism by which behaviorally relevant stimuli are specifically encoded into long-term memory, ensuring that important stimuli are stored preferentially over incidental ones,” adds Tonegawa, the senior author of the study.
Akiko Wagatsuma, a former MIT research scientist, is the lead author of the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Dec. 25.