How paying attention helps improve our memory

2018

Challenge

We know from our own personal experiences that it is much easier to remember something if we are paying attention to it, yet it has not been clear how electrochemical signals sent by neurons within the human brain enable attention to improve memory formation.

Advance

IRP researchers, led by Kareem A. Zaghloul, M.D., Ph.D., examined how paying attention improves our memory by measuring neuronal signals with electrodes implanted in participants receiving surgery for epilepsy. The team discovered that when an individual is paying attention, the brain silences neuronal activity in an area called the anterior temporal lobe immediately before the person is presented with something that he or she will later remember. When an event occurs, this silencing makes it easier for the neural activity triggered in the brain by that event to be encoded into memory.

Impact

These new findings improve our understanding of how the brain improves our ability to form memories when we are paying attention. This work has important implications for understanding memory formation in both healthy individuals and those who suffer from neurological disorders affecting their memory. The results suggest that improving the brain’s ability to distinguish between the neuronal activity caused by an event and unrelated background neuronal firing could be a possible approach for improving memory function in patients.

Publications

Wittig JH, Jang AI, Cocjin JB, Inati SK, Zaghloul KA. (2018). Attention improves memory by suppressing spiking-neuron activity in the human anterior temporal lobe. Nature Neuroscience. 21:808-810.