Discovery of brain’s ‘storytelling station’ could lead to earlier treatment of dementia

The brain’s ‘storytelling station’ has been identified by scientists in a discovery that could lead to earlier treatment of dementia.

It lies in the hippocampus – an area that controls memory where neurons link separate distant events into a single narrative.

First author Brendan Cohn-Sheehy, a PhD student at California University in Davis, said: “Things that happen in real life don’t always connect directly.

“But we can remember the details of each event better if they form a coherent narrative.”

Volunteers underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) as they learned and recalled a series of short stories.

They featured main and side characters and an event – and were created specifically for the study.

The stories were constructed so some formed connected, two-parters and others did not.

Participants were in the scanner as recordings were played to them – and next day as they were asked to remember them.

Patterns of activity in the hippocampus were similar for learning pieces of a coherent story than for those that did not connect.

The results published in the journal Current Biology showed the coherent memories being woven together.

Mr Cohn-Sheehy said: “When you get to the second event, you’re reaching back to the first event and embedding part of it in the new memory.”

When recalling stories that formed a coherent narrative, the hippocampus triggered more information about the second event than when remembering non-connected stories.

Mr Cohn-Sheehy said: “The second event is where the hippocampus is forming a connected memory.”

Further tests found the ability to bring back hippocampal activity of the second event was linked to the amount of detail the volunteers could recall.

Other parts of the brain are also involved in the process of memory.

But the hippocampus appears to bring pieces together across time and form them into connected narrative memories.

Mr Cohn-Sheehy said it could lead to better clinical tests for early stages of memory decline in ageing or Alzheimer’s.

Potential dementia drugs have a high failure rate because they are prescribed to trial participants once the disease has taken hold.

The findings also open the door to more efficient assessments of damage to memory from brain injuries.

The work is part of a new era in memory research. Neuroscientists have studied the basic processes of memory involving disconnected pieces of information.

Psychologists have a tradition of looking at how memory works to capture and connect events in the ‘real world.’ The camps are starting to merge.

Mr Cohn-Sheehy said: “We’re using brain imaging to get at realistic memory processes.”

Research on memory processes could ultimately lead to better clinical tests for early stages of memory decline in aging or dementia, or for assessing damage to memory from brain injuries.

Mr Cohn-Sheehy said: “People love stories. We find it easier to remember events when they are part of an overarching narrative.

“But in real life, the chapters of a story don’t follow smoothly one from another. Other things happen in between.

“The hippocampus is the brain’s storyteller – connecting separate, distant events into a single narrative.”


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