Memory has long been described as a function of brain cells getting together and forming connections. A new study finds single cells can remember things.
Individual nerve cells (called neurons) in the front part of the brain can hold traces of memories by themselves for up to a minute, perhaps longer.
The fleeting memories, which the researchers found in mice brains, are held in the most highly evolved part of the brain in a manner akin to the nonpermanent working memory of a computer.
"It's more like RAM [random access memory] on a computer than memory stored on a disk," said Don Cooper, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "The memory on the disk is more permanent and you can go back and access the same information repeatedly. RAM memory is rewritable temporary storage that allows multitasking."
Mice brains are thought to function much like human brains, so the finding could help scientists better understand how our brains store rapidly changing information. Cooper likened the temporary one-cell memory storage to the sort of thing a card shark does when counting cards in a game of Black Jack. As casinos know, this is the memory that is most sensitive to the disruptive effects of alcohol and noisy distractions, Cooper points out. Hence, perhaps, the free drinks casinos offer up.
The discovery, detailed in the February issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, could also lead to improved understanding of addictions, attention disorders and stress-related memory loss.