Learning to Learn - How the Brain Creates Memory
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
• German Research Foundation (DFG)
• University Alliance Ruhr
On December 5th, 2016, the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) New York, the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the University Alliance Ruhr, hosted the panel discussion “Learning to Learn – How the Brain Creates Memory.” The topics discussed at this event were neurophysiology, cognitive biology, psychology, and how the brain’s hippocampus stores memories through the input of external sensory information.
Dr. Joann Halpern, director of the GCRI New York, and Peter Rosenbaum, executive director of the University Alliance Ruhr, opened the panel discussion by welcoming the attendees and speakers. Dr. Halpern also gave a special welcome to a Leipzig delegation with expertise in the areas of biotechnology and medical diagnostics.
Dr. André Fenton from the Center for Neural Science at New York University was the moderator of the event. He introduced the speakers and the topic of the panel discussion, how the brain creates memory. One of the first key points that Dr. Fenton mentioned was that we don't know exactly, in physical, biological terms, what a memory is. When Dr. Fenton introduced the first speaker, Prof. Lucia Jacobs, he mentioned that it’s possible to be able to study the fundamentals of memory storage in different species, such as birds, squirrels, and humans.
Prof. Lucia Jacobs, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley discussed how memory has evolved over time and in different species. During her presentation, she focused primarily on the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memory is stored. Not only does the hippocampus differ in various species, differences can also be found in male and female animals of the same species. Prof. Jacobs discussed how all vertebrates use the hippocampus to map space. She noted that a brain’s memories and its ability to attain and store memories, does not occur in a vacuum of an individual’s head, but within an environment’s social and physical context. Sensations triggering a memory can be of sensory nature like a smell or a sound.
The second speaker, Prof. Dr. Raymond Kesner, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, has focused several of his studies on the hippocampus. Prof. Kesner began by explaining that all of the brain’s information originates from the cortex and then flows into the hippocampus. The hippocampus, which is often understood as a single structure, is in fact made up of different parts. Prof. Kesner presented certain conditions and specialized functions of the hippocampus. He provided an overview of the hippocampal anatomy and then emphasized the role that the cortex plays for information transmission to different areas of the hippocampus. Every part of the hippocampus carries out a different function, including compressing, filtering, and organizing information from the cortex.
The third speaker, Prof. Denise Manahan-Vaughan from the department of Neurophysiology at the Ruhr University Bochum, began by explaining that long-term memory is created by synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus. Prof. Manahan-Vaughan provided evidence of precise measurements of brain cells and the clear depiction of them within the hippocampus. Prof. Manahan-Vaughan’s research focuses on how cells change and interact with each other, and how those interactions lead to a memory within the hippocampus. She used a detailed example to illustrate how the hippocampus is affected by senses like smells: a tourist who visits two different, yet similar German Schnitzel restaurants in two different cities is able to use senses like the smells, lighting, and music to help the hippocampus differentiate between the restaurants. She concluded her speech by stating that exciting experiences like skydiving can be vital to how they positively affect our neuromodulatory systems.
The evening concluded with further discussions about how a sense of smell is important for the brain to recognize things that are familiar and how modern technology affects the brain, e.g. GPS systems in cars. The Q&A was also focused on topics such as PTSD, dreams, aging, and decaying neurons.