Further Mapping of the Brain Sheds Light on How We Recall Memories

As we age, our cognitive functions, such as memory, tend to decline — possibly because the structures in our brain change with aging. In a recent study published in PNAS, neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine uncovered evidence that the brain structure known as the hippocampus is responsible for both recollection and familiarization of memories, which could be important information for researchers studying aging and cognitive function.

What is Memory Recollection and Familiarization?
Put simply, memory recollection is what’s going on in your brain when you specifically remember a certain item or word, whereas familiarization is that feeling of knowing an item or word, but not being able to recall exactly when you first saw it. Studies have argued that the brain has distinct areas responsible for the two memory systems, but researchers haven’t been able to determine which areas exactly. The recent study in PNAS did just that.

How the Researchers Made This Discovery
The researchers gave 66 volunteers familiarity and recognition tasks based off of words. They found that when subjects remembered a word correctly, the hippocampus was very active, whereas difficulty remembering words was associated with less activity in the hippocampus. These results supported their thinking that the hippocampus is important in both recollection and familiarization of memories.

How Is This Related to Aging?
Although this study was not specifically targeted at an aging population, it gives us some insight on the role of the hippocampus when it comes to the recollection and familiarization of memories. We know that the structures of our brain change as we age; certain parts shrink, signals between structures weaken, there is lowered blood supply to the brain and so forth. With the new findings from this study, scientists can now examine this particular part of the brain and understand results from other studies on the aging hippocampus better.

What You Can Do Today
So now that we know more about the function of the hippocampus and that it is susceptible to the aging process, what exactly can you do to maintain its health? Well, studies of older adults have shown that moderate exercise improves memory and effectively reduces aging of the hippocampus by one to two years! Exercise of even just 40 minutes of walking for three days a week can improve your brain health, so go outside and get some fresh air! It might do your hippocampus some good.

(Feature photo courtesy of CDC public image library)

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.