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How Our Brains Replay Memories

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Retrieving a Memory
Caption: Encoding and replaying learned memory. Left panel shows the timed sequence of neurons firing in a part of a person’s brain involved in memory as it encodes the random pair of words, “crow” and “jeep.” Colors are assigned to different neurons to differentiate their firing within the sequence. Right panel shows a highly similar timed sequence of those same neurons firing just before a person given the word “jeep,” recalled and said the correct answer “crow.” Credit: Vaz AP, Science, 2020.

Note to my blog readers: the whole world is now facing a major threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. We at NIH are doing everything we can to apply the best and most powerful science to the development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, while also implementing public health measures to protect our staff and the patients in our hospital. This crisis is expected to span many weeks, and I will occasionally report on COVID-19 in this blog format. Meanwhile, science continues to progress on many other fronts—and so I will continue to try to bring you stories across a wide range of topics. Perhaps everyone can use a little break now and then from the coronavirus news? Today’s blog takes you into the intricacies of memory.

When recalling the name of an acquaintance, you might replay an earlier introduction, trying to remember the correct combination of first and last names. (Was it Scott James? Or James Scott?) Now, neuroscientists have found that in the split second before you come up with the right answer, your brain’s neurons fire in the same order as when you first learned the information [1].

This new insight into memory retrieval comes from recording the electrical activity of thousands of neurons in the brains of six people during memory tests of random word pairs, such as “jeep” and “crow.” While similar firing patterns had been described before in mice, the new study is the first to confirm that the human brain stores memories in specific sequences of neural activity that can be replayed again and again.

The new study, published in the journal Science, is the latest insight from neurosurgeon and researcher Kareem Zaghloul at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Zaghloul’s team has for years been involved in an NIH Clinical Center study for patients with drug-resistant epilepsy whose seizures cannot be controlled with drugs.

As part of this work, his surgical team often temporarily places a 4 millimeter-by-4 millimeter array of tiny electrodes on the surface of the brains of the study’s participants. They do this in an effort to pinpoint brain tissues that may be the source of their seizures before performing surgery to remove them. With a patient’s informed consent to take part in additional research, the procedure also has led to a series of insights into what happens in the human brain when we make and later retrieve new memories.

Here’s how it works: The researchers record electrical currents as participants are asked to learn random word pairs presented to them on a computer screen, such as “cake” and “fox,” or “lime” and “camel.” After a period of rest, their brain activity is again recorded as they are given a word and asked to recall the matching word.

Last year, the researchers reported that the split second before a person got the right answer, tiny ripples of electrical activity appeared in two specific areas of the brain [2]. The team also had shown that, when a person correctly recalled a word pair, the brain showed patterns of activity that corresponded to those formed when he or she first learned to make a word association.

The new work takes this a step further. As study participants learned a word pair, the researchers noticed not only the initial rippling wave of electricity, but also that particular neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex fired repeatedly in a sequential order. In fact, with each new word pair, the researchers observed unique firing patterns among the active neurons.

If the order of neuronal firing was essential for storing new memories, the researchers reasoned that the same would be true for correctly retrieving the information. And, indeed, that’s what they were able to show. For example, when individuals were shown “cake” for a second time, they replayed a very similar firing pattern to the one recorded initially for this word just milliseconds before correctly recalling the paired word “fox.”

The researchers then calculated the average sequence similarity between the firing patterns of learning and retrieval. They found that as a person recalled a word, those patterns gradually became more similar. Just before a correct answer was given, the recorded neurons locked onto the right firing sequence. That didn’t happen when a person gave an incorrect answer.

Further analysis confirmed that the exact order of neural firing was specific to each word pair. The findings show that our memories are encoded as unique sequences that must be replayed for accurate retrieval, though we still don’t understand the molecular mechanisms that undergird this.

Zaghloul reports that there’s still more to learn about how these processes are influenced by other factors such as our attention. It’s not yet known whether the brain replays sequences similarly when retrieving longer-term memories. Along with these intriguing insights into normal learning and memory, the researchers think this line of research will yield important clues as to what changes in people who suffer from memory disorders, with potentially important implications for developing the next generation of treatments.


[1] Replay of cortical spiking sequences during human memory retrieval. Vaz AP, Wittig JH Jr, Inati SK, Zaghloul KA. Science. 2020 Mar 6;367(6482):1131-1134.

[2] Coupled ripple oscillations between the medial temporal lobe and neocortex retrieve human memory. Vaz AP, Inati SK, Brunel N, Zaghloul KA. Science. 2019 Mar 1;363(6430):975-978.


Epilepsy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Brain Basics (NINDS)

Zaghloul Lab (NINDS)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Autism Yields New Insights

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Baby and DNA Strands

Anyone who’s spent time with people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can tell you that it’s a very complex puzzle. The wide variability seen among individuals with this group of developmental brain disorders, which can disrupt communication, behavior control, and social skills, has also posed a huge challenge for researchers trying to identify underlying genetic and environmental factors. So, it’s no surprise that there’s been considerable interest in the recent findings of the largest-ever genetic study of ASD.

In a landmark study that analyzed the DNA of more than 35,000 people from around the world, the NIH-funded international Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) identified variants in 102 genes associated with increased risk of developing ASD, up from 65 identified previously. Of the 102 genes, 60 had not been previously linked to ASD and 53 appeared to be primarily connected to ASD as opposed to other types of intellectual disability or developmental delay. It is expected that this newfound genetic knowledge will serve to improve understanding of the complex biological mechanisms involved in ASD, ultimately paving the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

The study reported in the journal Cell was led by Joseph Buxbaum, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Stephan Sanders, University of California, San Francisco; Kathryn Roeder, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; and Mark Daly, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. These researchers and their teams faced what might seem like a rather daunting task.

While common genetic variants collectively are known to contribute substantially to ASD, rare variants have been recognized individually as more major contributors to a person’s risk of developing ASD. The challenge was how to find such rare variants—whether inherited or newly arising.

To do so, the researchers needed to analyze a enormous amount of DNA data. Fortunately, they and their ASC colleagues already had assembled a vast trove of data. Over the last decade, the ASC had collected DNA samples with full consent from thousands of people with and without ASD, including unaffected siblings and parents. All were aggregated with other studies, and, at the time of this investigation, they had gathered 35,584 unique samples. Those included more than 21,000 family-based samples and almost 12,000 samples from people diagnosed with ASD.

In search of rare genetic alterations, they sequenced whole exomes, the approximately 1.5 percent of the genome that codes for proteins. Their search produced a list of 102 ASD-associated genes, including 30 that had never been implicated in any developmental brain disorder previously.

But that was just the beginning. Next, the ASC team dug deeper into this list. The researchers knew from previous work that up to half of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Many of the associated genes overlap, meaning they play roles in both outcomes. So, in one set of analyses, the team compared the list to the results of another genetic study of people diagnosed with developmental delays, including problems with learning or gross motor skills such as delayed walking.

The detailed comparison allowed them to discern genes that are more associated with features of ASD, as opposed to those that are more specific to these developmental delays. It turns out that 49 of the 102 autism-associated genes were altered more often in people with developmental delay than in those diagnosed with ASD. The other 53 were altered more often in ASD, suggesting that they may be more closely linked to this condition’s unique features.

Further study also showed that people who carried alterations in genes found predominantly in ASD also had better intellectual function. They also were more likely to have learned to walk without a developmental delay.

The 102 new genes fell primarily into one of two categories. Many play a role in the brain’s neural connections. The rest are involved primarily in switching other genes on and off in brain development. Interestingly, they are expressed both in excitatory neurons, which are active in sending signals in the brain, and in inhibitory neurons that squelch such activity. Many of these genes are also commonly expressed in the brain’s cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that is responsible for many complex behaviors.

Overall, these findings underscore that ASD truly does exist on a spectrum. Indeed, there are many molecular paths to this disorder. The ASC researchers continue to collect samples, so we can expect this list of 102 genes will continue to expand in the future.

With these gene discoveries in hand, the researchers will now also turn their attention to unravelling additional details about how these genes function in the brain. The hope is that this growing list of genes will converge on a smaller number of important molecular pathways, pointing the way to new and more precise ways of treating ASD in all its complexity.


[1] Large-scale exome sequencing study implicates both developmental and functional changes in the neurobiology of autism. Satterstrom FK, Kosmicki JA, Wang J, Breen MS, De Rubeis S, An JY, Peng M, Collins R, Grove J, Klei L, Stevens C, Reichert J, Mulhern MS, Artomov M, Gerges S, Sheppard B, Xu X, Bhaduri A, Norman U, Brand H, Schwartz G, Nguyen R, Guerrero EE, Dias C; Autism Sequencing Consortium; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium, Betancur C, Cook EH, Gallagher L, Gill M, Sutcliffe JS, Thurm A, Zwick ME, Børglum AD, State MW, Cicek AE, Talkowski ME, Cutler DJ, Devlin B, Sanders SJ, Roeder K, Daly MJ, Buxbaum JD.Cell. 2020 Jan 23. {Epub ahead of print]


Autism Spectrum Disorder (NIH/National Institute of Mental Health)

Joseph Buxbaum (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York)

Sanders Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Kathryn Roeder (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA)

Mark Daly (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

Autism Sequencing Consortium (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute Mental Health; National Human Genome Research Institute

The Amazing Brain: Mapping Brain Circuits in Vivid Color

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Hop aboard as we fly up, down, left, and right through the information highways of the human brain! This captivating and eye-catching video was one of the winners of the 2019 “Show us Your Brain!” contest sponsored by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.

The video travels through several portions of the brain’s white matter—bundles of fiber that carry nerve signals between the brain and the body, as well as within the brain itself. Fiber colors indicate directionality: left-right fibers (red), front-back fibers (green), and top-bottom fibers (blue).

Looking from the back, we start our journey deep within the brain in the limbic system, the area that helps control emotion, learning, and memory. About three seconds in, visual fibers pop into view extending from the eyes to various brain areas into the occipital lobe (one of four major brain lobes) in the back of the brain.

About two seconds later, flying over top as the brain starts rotating, we see various fiber bundles spray upward throughout the cerebral cortex, communicating information related to language processing, short-term memory, and other functions. About halfway through the video, several green bundles emerge arching across the brain’s midline. These bundles, called the corpus callosum, house the fibers enabling communication between left and right sides of the brain. Finally, the video closes as we see many different fiber bundles lighting up all over, enabling communication between different cortical and subcortical portions of the brain through association and projection pathways.

Dynamic maps like these are created using a 3D imaging technique called diffusion MRI tractography [1]. The technique tracks subtle pathways of water movement in the brain, and allows researchers to model the physical properties (connectional anatomy) that underlie the brain’s electrical properties (neuronal signaling). Postdoctoral researcher Ryan Cabeen and Arthur Toga, director of the University of Southern California Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, Los Angeles, used the method to study how white matter changes in developing and aging brains, as well as in brains affected by neurodegenerative or neurological disorders.

Scientific animator Jim Stanis produced the video with Cabeen and Toga. The team first created a population-averaged brain using high-quality diffusion MRI datasets from the Human Connectome Project ,and then used sophisticated computational tools to delineate each bundle manually .

The tractography technique lets scientists visualize and quantitatively analyze the brain’s wiring patterns, complementing our understanding of how the brain functions. Such methods are especially useful to learn about the organization of deep-brain areas that remain out of reach for scientists using current tools and imaging techniques.


[1] Kernel regression estimation of fiber orientation mixtures in diffusion MRI. Cabeen RP, Bastin ME, Laidlaw DH. Neuroimage. 2016 Feb 15;127:158-172.


Arthur Toga (USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, Los Angeles)

Ryan Cabeen (USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute)

qitwiki—Information about the Quantitative Imaging Toolkit (USC)

Human Connectome Project (USC)

Show Us Your Brain Contest! (BRAIN Initiative/NIH)

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Mental Health

Study Suggests Light Exercise Helps Memory

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Fitness group doing tai chi in park

Credit: iStock/Wavebreakmedia

How much exercise does it take to boost your memory skills? Possibly a lot less than you’d think, according to the results of a new study that examined the impact of light exercise on memory.

In their study of 36 healthy young adults, researchers found surprisingly immediate improvements in memory after just 10 minutes of low-intensity pedaling on a stationary bike [1]. Further testing by the international research team reported that the quick, light workout—which they liken in intensity to a short yoga or tai chi session—was associated with heightened activity in the brain’s hippocampus. That’s noteworthy because the hippocampus is known for its involvement in remembering facts and events.

How the Brain Regulates Vocal Pitch

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Credit: University of California, San Francisco

Whether it’s hitting a high note, delivering a punch line, or reading a bedtime story, the pitch of our voices is a vital part of human communication. Now, as part of their ongoing quest to produce a dynamic picture of neural function in real time, researchers funded by the NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative have identified the part of the brain that controls vocal pitch [1].

This improved understanding of how the human brain regulates the pitch of sounds emanating from the voice box, or larynx, is more than cool neuroscience. It could aid in the development of new, more natural-sounding technologies to assist people who have speech disorders or who’ve had their larynxes removed due to injury or disease.

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