Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
The NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. As described in the initiative’s name, the development of innovative imaging technologies will enable researchers to see the brain in new and increasingly dynamic ways. Each year, the initiative celebrates some standout and especially creative examples of such advances in the “Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo & Video Contest. During most of August, I’ll share some of the most eye-catching developments in our blog series, The Amazing Brain.
In this fascinating image, you’re seeing two stored memories, which scientists call engrams, in the hippocampus region of a mouse’s brain. The engrams show the neural intersection of a good memory (green) and a bad memory (pink). You can also see the nuclei of many neurons (blue), including nearby neurons not involved in the memory formation.
This award-winning image was produced by Stephanie Grella in the lab of NIH-supported neuroscientist Steve Ramirez, Boston University, MA. It’s also not the first time that the blog has featured Grella’s technical artistry. Grella, who will soon launch her own lab at Loyola University, Chicago, previously captured what a single memory looks like.
To capture two memories at once, Grella relied on a technology known as optogenetics. This powerful method allows researchers to genetically engineer neurons and selectively activate them in laboratory mice using blue light. In this case, Grella used a harmless virus to label neurons involved in recording a positive experience with a light-sensitive molecule, known as an opsin. Another molecular label was used to make those same cells appear green when activated.
After any new memory is formed, there’s a period of up to about 24 hours during which the memory is malleable. Then, the memory tends to stabilize. But with each retrieval, the memory can be modified as it restabilizes, a process known as memory reconsolidation.
Grella and team decided to try to use memory reconsolidation to their advantage to neutralize an existing fear. To do this, they placed their mice in an environment that had previously startled them. When a mouse was retrieving a fearful memory (pink), the researchers activated with light associated with the positive memory (green), which for these particular mice consisted of positive interactions with other mice. The aim was to override or disrupt the fearful memory.
As shown by the green all throughout the image, the experiment worked. While the mice still showed some traces of the fearful memory (pink), Grella explained that the specific cells that were the focus of her study shifted to the positive memory (green).
What’s perhaps even more telling is that the evidence suggests the mice didn’t just trade one memory for another. Rather, it appears that activating a positive memory actually suppressed or neutralized the animal’s fearful memory. The hope is that this approach might one day inspire methods to help people overcome negative and unwanted memories, such as those that play a role in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues.
Stephanie Grella (Boston University, MA)
Ramirez Group (Boston University)
Show Us Your BRAINs Photo & Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)
NIH Support: BRAIN Initiative; Common Fund
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Your brain has the capacity to store a lifetime of memories, covering everything from the name of your first pet to your latest computer password. But what does a memory actually look like? Thanks to some very cool neuroscience, you are looking at one.
The physical manifestation of a memory, or engram, consists of clusters of brain cells active when a specific memory was formed. Your brain’s hippocampus plays an important role in storing and retrieving these memories. In this cross-section of a mouse hippocampus, imaged by the lab of NIH-supported neuroscientist Steve Ramirez, at Boston University, cells belonging to an engram are green, while blue indicates those not involved in forming the memory.
When a memory is recalled, the cells within an engram reactivate and turn on, to varying degrees, other neural circuits (e.g., sight, sound, smell, emotions) that were active when that memory was recorded. It’s not clear how these brain-wide connections are made. But it appears that engrams are the gatekeepers that mediate memory.
The story of this research dates back several years, when Ramirez helped develop a system that made it possible to image engrams by tagging cells in the mouse brain with fluorescent dyes. Using an innovative technology developed by other researchers, called optogenetics, Ramirez’s team then discovered it could shine light onto a collection of hippocampal neurons storing a specific memory and reactivate the sensation associated with the memory .
Ramirez has since gone on to show that, at least in mice, optogenetics can be used to trick the brain into creating a false memory . From this work, he has also come to the interesting and somewhat troubling conclusion that the most accurate memories appear to be the ones that are never recalled. The reason: the mammalian brain edits—and slightly changes—memories whenever they are accessed.
All of the above suggested to Ramirez that, given its tremendous plasticity, the brain may possess the power to downplay a traumatic memory or to boost a pleasant recollection. Toward that end, Ramirez’s team is now using its mouse system to explore ways of suppressing one engram while enhancing another .
For Ramirez, though, the ultimate goal is to develop brain-wide maps that chart all of the neural networks involved in recording, storing, and retrieving memories. He recently was awarded an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to begin the process. Such maps will be invaluable in determining how stress affects memory, as well as what goes wrong in dementia and other devastating memory disorders.
 Optogenetic stimulation of a hippocampal engram activates fear memory recall. Liu X, Ramirez S, Pang PT, Puryear CB, Govindarajan A, Deisseroth K, Tonegawa S. Nature. 2012 Mar 22;484(7394):381-385.
 Creating a false memory in the hippocampus. Ramirez S, Liu X, Lin PA, Suh J, Pignatelli M, Redondo RL, Ryan TJ, Tonegawa S. Science. 2013 Jul 26;341(6144):387-391.
 Artificially Enhancing and Suppressing Hippocampus-Mediated Memories. Chen BK, Murawski NJ, Cincotta C, McKissick O, Finkelstein A, Hamidi AB, Merfeld E, Doucette E, Grella SL, Shpokayte M, Zaki Y, Fortin A, Ramirez S. Curr Biol. 2019 Jun 3;29(11):1885-1894.
The Ramirez Group (Boston University, MA)
Ramirez Project Information (Common Fund/NIH)
NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (Common Fund)
NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award (Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund