A new study in the Oct. 9 issue of the journal Nature describes three distinct stages in the life of a memory, and helps explain how memories endure – or are forgotten – including the role that sleep plays in safeguarding memories.
"To initiate a memory is almost like creating a word processing file on a computer," explains the studys first author, Matthew Walker, Ph.D., instructor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. "Once the file has been created, if you dont hit the save button before shutting off the computer it will be lost. Our new research helps explain the process in our brains that enable us to first create the memories and then to stabilize and save the memories weve created." The findings then go on to explain how memories can later be "edited" once theyve been saved.
Walker, who conducted the research while at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, and his colleagues focused on "procedural skill memory," the "how" type of memory that enables humans to learn coordination-based skills, such as driving, playing a sport, or learning to play a musical instrument or perform a surgical procedure. "This is the type of memory that we often take for granted," says Walker. "But for stroke patients or other individuals who have suffered neurological damage that has injured their motor skills functioning – including how they speak and how they move – it quickly becomes apparent how critically important this type of memory is to our daily existence." To identify these three stages of memory, the authors instructed a group of individuals (100 young healthy subjects, ages 18 to 27) in several different finger-tapping sequences (for example, 4,1,2,3,4) at various intervals and at various points of the sleep-wake cycle. Their resulting data disclosed several important findings, according to Walker.
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