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UCI Professor Elaborates on Studies in Memory Retention

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Donald Bren professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at UCI, Thomas Carew presented perspectives on the science behind short-term and long-term memories.
Hosted by the UCI School of Biological Sciences and funded by The Allergan Foundation, the lecture, titled ‘From Molecules to Memories: Lessons from a Simple Brain,’ was held on Oct. 20 at the Crystal Cove Auditorium in the Student Center at UCI.
‘The question is, why do some memories last seconds and other last months and years and sometimes are permanent? From a deeper prospective I think that understanding memory is a window to understanding ourselves,’ Carew said.
Carew stressed the importance of understanding memory and why some memories last longer than others.
‘I think that the importance of memory for understanding ourselves can be best appreciated by considering what happens when memory goes wrought,’ Carew said. ‘I’m talking about the devastating consequences in neurological diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or massive brain problems where one loses their memory to such a degree that they no longer actually remember who they are.’
Carew explained that each step of the molecular process can be examined to uncover the influence of physical experiences.
‘What we do is look inside the neurons at the molecular and biochemical events that occur and we find that we can identify particular kinds of molecular steps that are activated by certain kinds of experiences,’ Carew said.
According to Carew, different situations can have many different affects on memory.
‘Those molecular events can dictate whether the memory is going to last an hour or a day or a month,’ Carew said. ‘They do that dictation by either changing the neuron for a little while or actually going in and changing genes which can change the memory permanently.’
Carew, who has been doing research for approximately 33 years, explained the reasons behind why some memories last longer than others when it comes to animals.
Carew used research from the aplysia, a sea creature from the California coast. Because of its simple brain structure, Carew and his colleagues were able to carefully examine its brain at a molecular level to understand how its memories were created.
‘We’ve been asking that in the simple model system, called aplysia, because it has giant neurons,’ Carew said.
Shiv Sharma, a post-graduate student in learning and memory, has helped Carew by contributing to publications about the long-term synaptic facilitation and memory in aplysia.
‘Any publications that come from the lab contribute to the standing of the school,’ Sharma said.
In the future, Carew hopes to continue studying the brain in order to elaborate on some rules. He wants to challenge conventional and potentially outdated standards of thinking when it comes to the brain and behavior.
‘We’re interested in molecular rules that are not just relevant in the animal that I work in but that are relevant to all animals including humans,’ Carew said. ‘And there is reason to believe that’s possible because of the conservation of these rules across a lot of species at the molecular level.’
Stephane Marinesco, a post-doctoral researcher of learning and memory, is another student that works with Carew in his research.
‘[I want to] understand induced memory by something that hurts the animal and to understand the stimulation,’ Marinesco said. ‘I want to understand what this does to the brain and why the brain codes something into memory. And I think by studying this neurological system we might be able to discover some of the normal activity in the brain of the system that’s important for memory.’
Carew hopes that his research will aid in the process of restoring memory for those who have a hard time remembering even who they are.
‘Ultimately I would be thrilled if some of those molecular rules turned out to be able to be engaged in the service of helping make memory better for people that have memory impairment,’ Carew said.