What’s the link between Jennifer Anniston and how our memory works?

Well, both are connected to a new study from Leicester university in which images from Jennifer Aniston, Clint Eastwood and Halle Berry were used in a ‘mind game’ to establish how new memories are formed. The study reveals that the same brain neuron that fires for one image (Jennifer Aniston) would also fire instantly for another image (Eiffel Tower)  if the volunteer had been shown an image of Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower.

From the press release:

Brain scientists in the UK and US have collaborated to make ‘a spectacular discovery’ – for the first time in human studies – of how memories are formed and new learning takes place.

A collaboration between Dr Matias Ison and Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga at the University of Leicester and Dr Itzhak Fried at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center revealed how a neuron in the brain instantly fired differently when a new memory was formed.

The research group at Leicester and UCLA had previously announced the ‘Jennifer Aniston neuron’ –the firing of a single neuron for a single image to form a concept.  The team has now proved their hypothesis to be true- and has gone further to demonstrate how new memories are formed.

The scientists showed patients images of a person in a context e.g. Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, Clint Eastwood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Halle Berry at the Sidney Opera House or Tiger Woods at the White House. They found that the neuron that formerly fired for a single image e.g. Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry, now also fired for the associated image too i.e. the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Opera House.

“The remarkable result was that the neurons changed their firing properties at the exact moment the subjects formed the new memories – the neuron initially firing to Jennifer Aniston started firing to the Eiffel Tower at the time the subject started remembering this association,” said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, head of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester.

“Moreover, we observed these changes after just a single presentation. This is a radical departure from previous experiments in animals where changes have been observed mainly after long training sessions.  This is critical to understanding the neural processes underlying real-life memory formation, as in real life we are not repeatedly exposed to an event in order to remember it – just one exposure is enough.”

(read more)

Or watch this video in which Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga explains the research:

Abstract of the study (free access):

The creation of memories about real-life episodes requires rapid neuronal changes that may appear after a single occurrence of an event. How is such demand met by neurons in the medial temporal lobe (MTL), which plays a fundamental role in episodic memory formation? We recorded the activity of MTL neurons in neurosurgical patients while they learned new associations. Pairs of unrelated pictures, one of a person and another of a place, were used to construct a meaningful association modeling the episodic memory of meeting a person in a particular place. We found that a large proportion of responsive MTL neurons expanded their selectivity to encode these specific associations within a few trials: cells initially responsive to one picture started firing to the associated one but not to others. Our results provide a plausible neural substrate for the inception of associations, which are crucial for the formation of episodic memories.

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