UC Berkeley researchers explore memory formation

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The mystery of how memories are made, stored and retrieved is closer to being solved, thanks to a group of UC Berkeley researchers.

Ehud Isacoff, a campus neurobiology professor and director of UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, is working to explore multiple levels of the brain to find out how memories form and how they can be damaged.

Scientists estimate that the brain is made up of about 86 billion nerve cells called neurons. Isacoff and his colleagues are studying how these cells communicate and how they “wire up” to form networks during embryonic development.

They hope to discover information about memory that could answer broad questions about the brain, such as why Alzheimer’s disease kills certain kinds of cells and how to prevent it.

“(Isacoff) works on this molecular synaptic level of mechanisms that are important for memory,” said Friedrich Sommer, an associate adjunct professor of neuroscience who works at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “We all believe that, to some extent, memory relies on changes in synaptic transmission. Therefore, this is very important.”

Sommer said Isacoff’s contributions to the field have “groundbreaking” implications for his own studies on theoretical neuroscience and for understanding memory. Sommer’s lab also studies memory but was not involved in Isacoff’s work.

To extend his research, Isacoff and his lab have been experimenting on tracking real-time memory formation in living animals.

For the past 11 years, Isacoff has worked with campus neurobiology professor Richard Kramer and chemistry professor Dirk Trauner from Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, using light to study how neurons communicate.

The zebrafish is an ideal animal for studying behavior, researchers say, because its brain is complex enough to coordinate a wide range of behaviors despite its small size. It is particularly integral to Isacoff’s research because the fish is completely transparent during its larval stage, making every cell in its body — including the 100,000 neurons in its brain — reachable by light without having to interfere with natural development or behavior.

Carlos Pantoja, a postdoctoral fellow in Isacoff’s lab, is currently studying a form of short-term memory in zebrafish called habituation.

“Our laboratory has developed techniques to control the activity of membrane receptors in the zebrafish brain using light,” Pantoja said in an email.

By activating or silencing brain cells, researchers can better understand how those cells relate to individual behaviors.

Isacoff described his research as being in the “early development” stage, as he and his colleagues continue to study memory formation. Pantoja said they hope to use their findings to better understand how the human brain functions.

“Importantly, it is thought that dysfunction in neural circuits, the basic units of behavior control in the nervous system, cause some forms of mental illness,” Pantoja said in an email.

In light of the implications of Isacoff’s research on his own work, Sommer stressed the importance of collaboration among neuroscientists in the present day.

“The time seems to be right to really do something in neuroscience. There’s the Obama BRAIN Initiative. In Europe there are these big projects — the Human Brain Project,” Sommer said. “Different directions of neuroscience research can actually start to work together and form a bigger picture.”

Contact Jean Lee at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @missjeanlee.