Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
You may think that you’re looking at a telescopic heat-map of a distant planet, with clickable thumbnail images to the right featuring its unique topography. In fact, what you’re looking at is a small region of the brain that’s measured in micrometers and stands out as a fascinating frontier of discovery into the very origins of thought and cognition.
It’s a section of a mouse hippocampus, a multi-tasking region of the brain that’s central to memory formation. What makes the image on the left so interesting is it shows four individual neurons (numbered circles) helping to form a memory.
The table of images on the right shows in greater detail how the memory is formed. You see those same four neurons, their activity logged individually. Cooler colors—indigo to turquoise—indicate background or low neuronal activity; warmer colors—yellow to red—indicate high neuronal activity.
Now, take a closer look at the rows of the table that are labeled “Initial.” The four neurons have responded to an initial two-part training session: the sounding of a tone (gray-shaded columns) followed by a stimulus (red-shaded columns) less than a minute later. The neurons, while active (multi-colored pattern), don’t fire in unison or at the same activity levels. A memory has not yet been formed.
That’s not the case just below in the rows labeled “Trained.” After several rounds of reinforcing the one-two sequence, neurons fire together at comparable activity levels in response to the tone (gray) followed by the now-predictable stimulus (red). This process of firing in unison, called neuronal synchronization, encodes the memory. In fact, the four neurons even deactivate in unison after each prompt (unshaded columns).
These fascinating images are the first to show an association between neuronal burst synchronization and hippocampus-dependent memory formation. This discovery has broad implications, from improving memory to reconditioning the mental associations that underlie post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This research comes from a team led by the NIH-supported investigator Xuanmao Chen, University of New Hampshire, Durham. In the study, published in the FASEB Journal, Chen and colleagues used deep-brain imaging technology to shed new light on some old-fashioned classical conditioning: Pavlovian training .
Over a century ago, Ivan Pavlov conducted experiments that conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell that signaled their feeding time. This concept of “classical conditioning” is central to our understanding of how we humans form certain types of memories. A baby smiles at the sound of her mother’s voice. Stores play holiday music at the end of the year, hoping the positive childhood association puts shoppers in the mood to buy more gifts. Our phone plays a distinctive tone, and we immediately check our text messages. In each example, the association with an otherwise neutral stimulus is learned—and stored in the brain as a “declarative,” or explicit, memory.
The researchers wanted to see what happened in neural cells when mice learned a new association. They applied Pavlov’s learning paradigm, training mice over repeated sessions by pairing an audible tone and, about 30 seconds later, a brief, mild foot stimulus. Mice instinctively halt their activities, or freeze, in response to the foot stimulus. After a few tone-stimulus training sessions, the mice also began freezing after the tone was sounded. They had formed a conditioned response.
During these training sessions, Chen and his colleagues were able to take high-resolution, real-time images of the hippocampus. This allowed them to track the same four neurons over the course of the day—and watch as memory creation, in the form of neuronal synchronization, took place. Later, during recall experiments, the tone itself elicited both the behavioral change and the coordinated neuronal response—if with a bit less regularity. It’s something we humans experience whenever we forget a computer password!
The researchers went on to capture even more evidence. They showed that these neurons, which became part of the stored “engram,” or physical location of the memory, were already active even before they were synchronized. This finding contributes to recent work challenging the long-held paradigm that memory-eligible neurons “switch on” from a silent state to form a memory . The researchers offered a new name for these active neurons: “primed,” as opposed to “silent.”
Chen and his colleagues continue studying the priming process and working out more of the underlying molecular details. They’re attempting to determine how the process is regulated and primed neurons become synchronized. And, of course, the big question: how does this translate into an actual memory in other living creatures? The next round of results should be memorable!
 Induction of activity synchronization among primed hippocampal neurons out of random dynamics is key for trace memory formation and retrieval. Zhou Y, Qiu L, Wang H, Chen X. FASEB J. 2020 Mar;34(3):3658–3676.
 Memory engrams: Recalling the past and imagining the future. Josselyn S, Tonegawa S. Science 2020 Jan 3;367(6473):eaaw4325.
Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Neuroanatomy, Hippocampus Fogwe LA, Reddy V, Mesfin FB. StatPearls Publishing (National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Xuanmao Chen (University of New Hampshire, Durham)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of General Medical Sciences