Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?

July 13, 2020

NEW YORK, NY (July 13, 2020)--Memories linked with strong emotions often become seared in the brain.

Most people can remember where they were on 9/11, or what the weather was like on the day their first child was born. Memories about world events on Sept 10, or lunch last Tuesday, have long been erased.

Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?

"It makes sense we don't remember everything," says René Hen, PhD, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. "We have limited brain power. We only need to remember what's important for our future wellbeing."

Fear, in this context, is not just a momentary feeling but a learning experience critical to our survival. When a new situation makes us fearful, the brain records the details in our neurons to help us avoid similar situations in the future, or use appropriate caution.

What's still a mystery is why these memories, recorded by the brain's hippocampus, become so strong.

To find out, Hen and Jessica Jimenez, an MD/PhD student at Columbia, placed mice into new, frightening environments and recorded the activity of hippocampal neurons that reach out to the brain's fear center (the amygdala). The neurons' activity was also recorded a day later when the mice tried to retrieve memories of the experience.

Unsurprisingly, neurons that respond to the frightening environment send that information to the brain's fear center.

"What was surprising was that these neurons were synchronized when the mouse later recalled the memory," Hen says.

"We saw that it's the synchrony that is critical to establish the fear memory, and the greater the synchrony, the stronger the memory," Jimenez adds. "These are the types of mechanisms that explain why you remember salient events."

How and when synchronization occurs is still unknown, but the answer could reveal the inner workings of the brain that create lifelong memories and lead to new treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder.

"In people with PTSD, many similar events remind them of the original frightening situation," Hen says, "and it's possible that synchronization of their neurons has become too strong."

"We're really trying to dig into the mechanisms of how emotional memories form to find better treatments for people with PTSD and memory disorders in general."
-end-
The findings appear in "Contextual fear memory retrieval by correlated ensembles of ventral CA1 neurons," published July 13 in Nature Communications.

René Hen, PhD, also is director of the Division of Systems Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry.

Additional authors: Jessica C. Jimenez, Jack E. Berry, Sean C. Lim, and Samantha K. Ong (Columbia University Irving Medical Center); and Mazen A. Kheirbek (University of California, San Francisco).

JCJ, SCL, and JEB are MD/PhD students at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The researchers and the study were supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship, an NIH T32 postdoctoral fellowship; a Weill Scholar Award, IMHRO/One Mind Rising Star Award, Pew Charitable Trusts, a Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship, New York State Stem Cell Science program (NYSTEM-C029157), Hope for Depression Research Foundation (RGA-13-003), and the NIH (R37 MH068542, R01 AG043688, R01 MH083862, S10 OD018464, R01 MH108623, R01 MH111754, and 1R01 MH117961).

The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Related Neurons Articles from Brightsurf:

Paying attention to the neurons behind our alertness
The neurons of layer 6 - the deepest layer of the cortex - were examined by researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University to uncover how they react to sensory stimulation in different behavioral states.

Trying to listen to the signal from neurons
Toyohashi University of Technology has developed a coaxial cable-inspired needle-electrode.

A mechanical way to stimulate neurons
Magnetic nanodiscs can be activated by an external magnetic field, providing a research tool for studying neural responses.

Extraordinary regeneration of neurons in zebrafish
Biologists from the University of Bayreuth have discovered a uniquely rapid form of regeneration in injured neurons and their function in the central nervous system of zebrafish.

Dopamine neurons mull over your options
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba have found that dopamine neurons in the brain can represent the decision-making process when making economic choices.

Neurons thrive even when malnourished
When animal, insect or human embryos grow in a malnourished environment, their developing nervous systems get first pick of any available nutrients so that new neurons can be made.

The first 3D map of the heart's neurons
An interdisciplinary research team establishes a new technological pipeline to build a 3D map of the neurons in the heart, revealing foundational insight into their role in heart attacks and other cardiac conditions.

Mapping the neurons of the rat heart in 3D
A team of researchers has developed a virtual 3D heart, digitally showcasing the heart's unique network of neurons for the first time.

How to put neurons into cages
Football-shaped microscale cages have been created using special laser technologies.

A molecule that directs neurons
A research team coordinated by the University of Trento studied a mass of brain cells, the habenula, linked to disorders like autism, schizophrenia and depression.

Read More: Neurons News and Neurons Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.