What if forgetting allowed you to optimize your day to day? In any case, this is the hypothesis proposed by researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College, University of Dublin (Ireland) in a study published in the journal Nature Review Neuroscience on January 13, 2022. According to these researchers, forgetting would be be a way for the brain to adapt to its environment by classifying its memories.
Engram cells: the tissue of memory
To make this classification, the brain must cut off communication with useless memories and favor those that may be useful. This neurological maneuver takes place at the level of the cells at the heart of memory: the engram cells. These, whose existence was theorized more than a century ago by Richard Simon, a German zoologist interested in the relationship between nerve cells and psychological states, have only recently returned to the scene with the advent of new technologies that allow more advanced study. and precise of the neurons. They are located in many areas of the brain (such as the cortex -which plays a central role in many functions ranging from sensitivity to memory-, the cerebellum -which is mainly involved in motor skills but also regulates fear and pleasure- or the hippocampus, seat of short-term memory and learning). They communicate with each other by forming engram complexes between brain regions. By turning off these complexes, the brain can turn off the memories associated with them.
“It is as if the memory were stored in a safe whose code we forget”
According to the team of Irish scientists, when faced with new situations, the brain learns to forget certain memories and retain the most useful ones. However, all these oversights are not lost forever in the limbo of our neurons. Even when engrams are no longer activated, they retain their associated memories. However, brain plasticity makes them inaccessible. “The memories themselves are still there, but if the engram complexes associated with them are not activated, then they cannot be retrieved. It is as if the memory were kept in a safe whose code we forget, ”explains Dr. Tomás Ryan, co-author of the study and associate professor at Trinity College, in the columns of Trinity College magazine. And it is from this idea that his theory arises: “The main idea that emerges from our study is that forgetting is due to remodeled neural circuits that cause engrams to go from an accessible state to an inaccessible state. oving is impacted by environmental conditions, we believe that forgetting is actually a form of learning that alters the accessibility of memories based on the environment and their predictability,” says Dr. Ryan.
A reversible oblivion
This view of how memory works offers a new way of approaching the issue of diseases linked to forgetfulness such as Alzheimer’s. If the forgetting manifests as the inactivation of the engrams, then the memories could come back when they are turned back on. “We believe that this ‘natural forgetting’ is reversible under certain circumstances, especially in the case of Alzheimer’s disease. The forgetting mechanism would have been hijacked and this would be the cause of a decrease in accessibility to the engram cells as well as a pathological memory loss”, conclude the Irish researchers.
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