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Brain connections last as long as the memories they store.

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Brain connections last as long as the memories they store.

A team of scientists applied microscopy know-how to a long-standing theory in neuroscience: if brain connections called synapses store memories, those synapses should last as long as the memories themselves. It turns out they do.

Our memories are as fleeting as the brain structures that store them, or so the theory goes. When the connections – called synapses – between neurons break, the memories they hold are thought to evaporate along with them.

The idea seemed good, but has been hard to test. Now a Stanford team has taken on the challenge, studying a brain region called the hippocampus, which stores "episodic" memories. These are the memories of events or conversations that might be forgotten over time if the memories aren't used. The challenge to studying synapses in this region is that the hippocampus is so deep and the connections so densely packed that no microscope could easily monitor the synapses' longevity.

Now Mark Schnitzer, an associate professor of biology and of applied physics, has leveraged microscopy tools developed in his lab and for the first time was able to monitor the connections, called synapses, between hippocampal neurons and confirm what neuroscientists thought might be happening. In the mice he and his team studied, the connections between neurons lasted about 30 days, roughly the duration over which episodic memories are believed to stay in the mouse hippocampus. The work was published on June 22 in Nature.

Using the same techniques, scientists can now probe additional aspects of how memories are formed, remembered and eventually lost at the level of the individual connections between neurons.

Top Reddit comment:

This is not actually new information for the brain. It's new information for the hippocampus, but stable dendritic spines (synapses) have been documented n the cortex for many years now.

500 Reddit comments:

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