Animals Possess Independent Working Memory Systems, Study Confirms


Are the million-dollar treatments for Alzheimer’s disease targeting the right types of memory?

A new study from Indiana University (IU) claims to be the first to confirm that rats have two independent “working memory” resources, enabling them to remember more information across two categories versus a single category. The research, published in the journal Current Biology, promises crucial insights for drug companies developing ways to treat Alzheimer’s and similar memory disorders.

The working memory of humans is made up of visual and auditory details. The average individual, for instance, can easily recall both the audio and video of a TV show while unable to remember a phone number longer than seven figures.

The IU researchers tested these forms of memory in animals by making rats memorize odors and spatial details. Their results consistently demonstrated that the rats recalled substantially more details in combination, or both odors and spaces, than when attempting to remember a single information type.

Lead study author and IU neurosciences director Jonathon Crystal said they witnessed high-level performance because the rats were encoding information in two dedicated memory resources – something that defines the quality of working memory in humans.

“[F]or the first time, we've shown animals have this property of independent memory systems as well,” he said, adding that this form of memory emerged much earlier evolutionarily than formerly thought.

The results, emphasized in light of the government's recent 60 percent increase in funding Alzheimer's disease research, intend to help create stronger preclinical models of the kind of memory systems impaired in human conditions.

What consequences does this hold for Alzheimer’s research?

Crystal explained that all probing of the genetics of Alzheimer’s rely on spatial memory studies, which are easier to conduct. Yet treatments based solely on this data will unlikely get to the heart of memory problems; more complex aspects, such as working memory, also need to be investigated.

The author said that researchers are currently spending billions of dollars on research that will assist someone find her car keys or reading glasses – symptoms that are hardly the most debilitating features of Alzheimer’s.

"We need solutions that address the inability to remember significant things, like memories of the past or personal exchanges with friends and family,” Crystal explained, highlighting the great distress these inabilities give to patients and their loved ones.

Alzheimer’s disease currently affects an estimated 5.3 million individuals in the United States alone.

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