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Memory Brain Hack: Super Sized Memory is Trainable and Long Lasting

Summary: Embarking in 30 minutes of strategic memory training for 40 days more than doubles the capacity for memory recall, a new study reports.

Source: Radboud University.

The ability to perform astonishing feats of memory, such as remembering lists of several dozen words, can be learned, Radboud researchers report in Neuron on March 8.

After 40 days of daily 30-minute training sessions using a strategic memory improvement technique, individuals who had typical memory skills at the start and no previous memory training more than doubled their memory capacity, going from recalling an average of 26 words from a list of 72 to remembering 62. Four months later, without continued training, recall performance remained high.

Brain scans before and after training showed that strategic memory training altered the brain functions of the trainees, making them more similar to those of world champion memory athletes. “After training we see massively increased performance on memory tests,” says first author Martin Dresler, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University Medical Center. “Not only can you induce a behavioral change, the training also induces similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes.”

Among the top-ten memory athletes in the world a few years ago was co-author Boris Konrad, a professional memory trainer who is also a post-doc in Dresler’s lab. Konrad and other top competitors in the World Memory Championships can memorize about a five hundred digits or a hundred words in five minutes. Konrad, who had become a memory athlete to improve his academic performance, helped connect Dresler to other top memory athletes for this study. Dresler began the work as visiting scholar in the Stanford University School of Medicine laboratory of memory disorders researcher Michael Greicius.

Dresler examined the brains of 23 world-class memory athletes and 23 people similar in age, health status, and intelligence but with typical memory skills. He used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a means of measuring brain activity by detecting blood flow changes inside the brain, to measure differences in the strengths of communications between brain regions. He used structural MRI to measure differences in sizes.

Initially, Dresler expected that memory champions might have notable differences in brain anatomy, the same way one might expect a world champion body builder to have unusually large muscles. Using structural MRI, however, they didn’t see differences.

Rather, the differences they detected between memory athletes and non-athletes were in connectivity patterns spread across 2,500 different connections in the brain. A subset of 25 connections most strongly differentiated athletes from those with typical memory skills.

Konrad, who was among those scanned, wasn’t born with exceptional memory skills. Nor were the other athletes Dresler studied. “They, without a single exception, trained for months and years using mnemonic strategies to achieve these high levels of performance,” Dresler says.

To explore the effects of training on the brain, Dresler and his colleagues recruited 51 individuals similarly matched to the memory athletes, but with typical memory skills and no previous memory training. They were split into three groups: two training groups and one group that did not train. The researchers scanned participants’ brains before and after training.

The two training methods were short-term memory training and strategic memory training. During short-term memory training, an individual practices remembering sequences, a bit like playing the game Concentration. Strategic memory training provides trainees with a systematic way to remember lists.

In this study, the strategy Dresler chose was memory of loci training, which is employed by most world champion memory athletes. Using this strategy, items on a list are associated with a remembered place, and users navigate that remembered place as they recall the list. (The method of loci training used in this study is available at http://memocamp.com.)

Those who trained using method of loci showed substantial improvement in their ability to recall lists of words. Before training, individuals could recall on average between 26 and 30 words. Afterwards, those with strategic memory training could recall 35 more words on average. Those who trained short-term memory could recall 11 more words. Those with no training recalled 7 more words.

A day later, those who had trained still showed improvements in recall. Four months later, only those with strategic training continued to show substantial gains, still recalling over 22 more words than prior to training. “Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training,” says Dresler.

After training, brain scans of those in the strategic training group had changed. They showed patterns that more closely resemble those of memory champions than scans taken prior to training.

Image shows a brain sand sculpture.

Dresler and his team are still analyzing their brain scan data to learn more about the differences in brain connectivity patterns they found and how they affect memory. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

To begin to understand how the connectivity patterns in the brains of memory athletes influence memory performance, Dresler and colleagues looked at the 25 connections that most differentiate memory athletes from others. They found hubs of connectivity to two brain regions. One, the medial prefrontal cortex, is known to be active when individuals relate new knowledge to pre-existing knowledge. The other, the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, is known to be involved in efforts to learn strategically. “It makes sense that these connections would be affected,” says Dresler. “These are exactly the things we ask subjects to do when using method of loci for memorization.”

Dresler and his team are still analyzing their brain scan data to learn more about the differences in brain connectivity patterns they found and how they affect memory.

ABOUT THIS MEMORYS RESEARCH ARTICLE

Funding: This work was supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the Volkswagen Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service, the Feldman Family Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Marcel Wortel – Radboud University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Radboud University Photo.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory” by Martin Dresler, William R. Shirer4, Boris N. Konrad4, Nils C.J. Müller, Isabella C. Wagner, Guillén Fernández, Michael Czisch, and Michael D. Greicius in Neuron. Published online March 8 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.003

Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear

Summary: A new study reports the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement.

Source: Northwestern University.

Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

Image shows the location of the amygdala in the brain.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrtive purposes only.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.

Researchers Discover Compound That Reverses Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Symptoms

Study in flies could have major implications for human disease.Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the two most common neurodegenerative disorders worldwide and cause untold suffering to millions of patients and their families. Treatments for these diseases are limited, and no cures exist. Now, a new study describes an innovative strategy that reverses symptoms in these neurodegenerative diseases – at least in fruit flies which had been genetically altered to model the diseases.“The novel approach we used has significant translational implications,” said one of the lead authors, Robert Schwarcz, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “If we can duplicate these effects in patients, we could benefit a lot of people.”

Schwarcz collaborated with geneticist Flaviano Giorgini at the University of Leicester in England. The study was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers focused on metabolites related to the amino acid tryptophan. When tryptophan degrades in the body, it breaks down into several compounds that have biological activities in the nervous system. One of these, 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK), has neurotoxic properties whereas another, named kynurenic acid (KYNA), has the ability to prevent nerve cell degeneration. The relative abundance of these two compounds in the brain may be critical in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and also Huntington’s disease.

Image of an alzheimer's brain.

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the two most common neurodegenerative disorders worldwide and cause untold suffering to millions of patients and their families. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

Schwarcz, Giorgini and their colleagues gave the insects a chemical that selectively inhibits tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO), an enzyme that controls the relationship between 3-HK and KYNA. This treatment shifted metabolism towards more KYNA, improved movement, and lengthened lifespan in the fly models of the diseases.

“A key finding of our study is that we can improve “symptoms” in fruit fly models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease by feeding them a drug-like chemical,” said another co-author, Carlo Breda of the University of Leicester. “Our experiments have identified TDO as a very promising new drug target.”

The next steps will involve testing of the new concept in humans and to examine whether the treatment works for neurodegenerative diseases.

ABOUT THIS GENETICS RESEARCH

Source: David Kohn – University of Maryland School of Medicine
Image Source: The image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) inhibition ameliorates neurodegeneration by modulation of kynurenine pathway metabolites” by Carlo Breda, Korrapati V. Sathyasaikumar, Shama Sograte Idrissi, Francesca M. Notarangelo, Jasper G. Estranero, Gareth G. L. Moore, Edward W. Green, Charalambos P. Kyriacou, Robert Schwarcz, and Flaviano Giorgini in PNAS. Published online April 25 2016 doi:10.1073/pnas.1604453113

 

Human brain keeps memories tidy by pruning inaccurate ones

by Michael Hotchkiss

Princeton graduate student Ghootae Kim discusses the memory research with Turk-Browne and Kenneth Norman, a Princeton professor of psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. The researchers’ experiment involved 24 adults whose brain was monitored by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) machine …More

Every Child Can Win the Memory Game

Article for Edutopia – The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Photo credit: Caroline O’Brien

As a student, I had great difficulty concentrating during lesson time and consequently didn’t retain much knowledge. I was diagnosed with dyslexia and had the symptoms of attention deficit disorder. Academic information just didn’t get through to me. Here are samples of reports that my teachers sent home when I was ten:

  • “He tends to dream in the middle of a calculation which leads him to lose track of the thought.”
  • “Has not paid much attention. Appears to know more of the Universe than the Earth.” (This was a veiled reference to daydreaming from my Geography teacher.)
  • “Terribly slow. Often cannot repeat the question. Must concentrate.”
  • “Unless Dominic really shakes himself up and gets down to work, he is not going to achieve any success . . . he is painfully slow.”

The comments contained no evidence that I would one day become an eight-time World Memory Champion and author of over a dozen books and courses on memory training. So what happened?

In 1987, aged 30, I watched a man on television memorize a shuffled deck of playing cards in just under three minutes. As corny as it may sound, that moment changed my life.

I taught myself to memorize playing cards and realized that the strategy I was developing could be used to remember anything. Today, when I appear on TV and radio shows all over the world, one question is always asked: “Why don’t they teach this stuff in schools?” Had I acquired those skills when I was at school, I would have achieved exam success, gone onto higher education, and actually enjoyed the learning process. Instead, I suffered low self-esteem and dropped out of school when I was 16.

Schools Memory Championships

In 2008, I co-founded the U.K. Schools Memory Championships along with Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind-mapping, and chess Grandmaster Raymond Keene. Rather than just going into a school and entertaining students with a few memory tricks, the aim was to embed powerful memory techniques into the minds of students by getting them to play “The Game of Memory” for themselves. These memory workshops are proven to boost young people’s self esteem, confidence and motivation to learn, and they provide tools to help improve overall achievement and exam performance.

Thinking back to when I was at school, I don’t recall a single lesson devoted entirely to the subject of memory. I can vaguely remember being given the acronym “Richard Of York Goes Battling In Vain” to remember the colors of the rainbow, but that was about it.

Having helped establish the teaching of memory skills the U.K. schools, I now find it completely illogical to expect a child to learn any subject without first teaching how to learn and how to remember. Read more…