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Brain state affects memory recall

June 13, 2011

Model: braiin

Researchers found that the levels of brain activity before items came up were correlated with memory.

Lost your keys? Your brain might be in a better state to recall where you put them at some times than at others, according to new research from UC Davis. A paper describing the work is published June 13 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s been assumed that the process of retrieving a memory is cued by an external stimulus,” said Charan Ranganath, professor at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology. “But we found that the levels of brain activity before items came up were correlated with memory.”

Graduate students Richard Addante and Andrew Watrous; Ranganath; Andrew Yonelinas, professor of psychology at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain; and Arne Ekstrom, assistant professor of psychology at the Center for Neuroscience, measured a particular frequency of brainwaves called theta oscillations in the brains of volunteers during a memory test.

Theta waves are associated with a brain that is actively monitoring something, Ranganath said. For example, rats show high theta waves while exploring a maze.

In the memory test, the volunteers had to memorize a series of words with a related context. They later had to recall whether they had seen the word previously and the context in which the word was seen.

High theta waves immediately before being prompted to remember an item were associated with better performance.

The work goes against the assumption that the brain is waiting to react to the external world, Ranganath said. In fact, most of the brain is busy with internal activity that is not related to the outside world — and when external stimuli come in, they interact with these spontaneous patterns of activity.

It’s not clear whether it is possible to deliberately put your brain into a better state for memory recall, Ranganath said. The laboratory is currently investigating that area — with the hope that it might lead to better treatments for memory loss.

The work was funded by grants from the NIH.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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