The Department of Biomedicine

Mechanisms of memory

An access to a better understanding of the human mind and the manner of our behaviour?

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Professor Clive Bramham's research group at the Department of Biomedicine uses a combination of electrophysiological, molecular biological and genetic studies, and methodology, to gain an understanding of the human memory and the regulatory mechanisms involved. It is likely that these mechanisms can have an importance beyond the level of how much we can remember.

The synapse is the brain's main instrument for neuronal communication and storage of information. It is believed that memory and other adaptive alterations in brain function are associated with experience-dependent changes in synaptic strength and structure. This fundamental property of the synapse is known as “synaptic plasticity”, and this is at the centre of Bramhams research activity.

- We are attempting to elucidate how information is stored in the brain, and, furthermore,  how people are able to adapt themselves to their environment. We have established that the ARC gene has an essential role in these processes causing long-term changes ín synaptic strength. The ARC system is therefore one that has developed during evolution such that we can remember, or it represents some form of “master switch” at the level of the synapse that enables long-term changes to occur in our synaptic connections.

Many factors affect how well we can memorize things.

- We know that many conditions such as illness, depression and age are all able to modulate our memory. Today, with many ongoing discussions related to inheritance and the environment, it is evident that there may well be genetic factors involved.

Together with local research colleagues, Bramham has an international research collaboration in the framework of an EU project where the topic is youth and stress in The Netherlands. This is being studied in relation to the growth factor BDNF.

- BDNF is a growth factor released by the synapse that can activate the previously mentioned ARC. In this project we are attempting to measure how young persons react to, and master, stress in their lives, in relation to this growth factor and the genes that are affected by it.

Many external factors appear to modulate activity of the brain and its plasticity. Remembering a pleasant bike trip on a wonderful day in the spring is an example of a “happy track”. Other forms of influence such as narcotics abuse, alcoholism, pain or traumatic experiences can all damage the brain and affect vital functions associated with synaptic plasticity. A better understanding of these mechanisms is obviously important, not only to gain knowledge concerning what is happening, why some have greater problems than others with regard to e.g. memory and the management of stress, but also to discover how problems can perhaps be addressed medically.

- Our focus, as basic biomedical researchers, is first and formally to understand mechanisms, but we hope that our knowledge will also contribute to the future establishment of therapeutic measures that can affect the memory process and related brain functions. Therapeutic regimes are probably 10 years distant. The ongoing research programme, which is a collective international effort, will provide the possibility for the establishment of better diagnostic and therapeutic opportunities in the not too far distant future.

Bramham is currently organising an international conference entitled “New concepts in Neuroscience”.

NevroNor Conference

Neuroscience Research Group

Selected publications from Bramhams research group