For the First Time, Scientists Photograph Memories Being Formed

Long-term memories are formed by proteins in brain cells

Before And After A Memory

Green fluorescent proteins show up once a memory is formed between neuronsMartin et al.

Scientists have achieved a new milestone in brain imaging: we have seen a memory in the process of being formed. Using brain cells from a lowly sea slug, which actually makes a good model for our brains, images were captured of proteins forming between the neurons. These proteins distinguish the memory as a long-term one rather than short-term, as the proteins solidify the memory in the neurons. This process had been suspected but not visualized until now.

Kelsey Martin's team at the University of California focused their imaging on the synapse, the communication junction between two neuron cells. Scientists first coated certain proteins with a fluorescent dye that starts out green, but turns red when exposed to UV light. They blasted the neurons with UV light and shifted everything to red, just to prove the dye was there. Then they bathed the cells in serotonin, a chemical that can stimulate memory formation. They were then able to watch as new green fluorescent proteins were created as the memory was made.

This shows that cell components like RNA, the blueprints used to build the proteins, are truly important in the formation of our memories. They also noticed that proteins were made on the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic side, showing that the proteins are needed to both send and receive the memory as it is transmitted.

The brain still remains one of the most mysterious parts of our anatomy, and is what makes us human. This could be the first step in us figuring out how we form memories and build associations in our brain. And, just maybe, you'll find this research so interesting that proteins are being built in your neurons right now.