Celebrity mind games are revealing new secrets about how the human brain forms memories. The study involved images of some of the world's best-known stars of the silver screen.

Photographs of Hollywood stars Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Josh Brolin, Clint Eastwood, and others  were utilized in the new study of how memories are formed, and learning takes place. Researchers found that if subjects were shown an image of Jennifer Aniston next to a landmark, such as the Eiffel Tower, the neurons that fire when that image is seen are identical to the ones that are excited when another image of the landmark is viewed. This suggests that brain neurons adapt their firing properties when memories are formed.

"The discovery that individual neurons in the Medial Temporal Lobe, the brain's main engine for memory formation, changed their firing to encode new associations even after one single presentation provides a plausible mechanism underlying the creation of new memories. The study suggests that the experience of learning can be traced back to changes in individual neurons in the brain," Matias Ison from the University of Leicester said.

These changes in neurons took place instantaneously upon seeing the photographs, suggesting memories are instantly encoded in the cells, researchers concluded. This took place even when subjects were only shown the image once. The study utilized electrodes to examine 14 people who suffer from severe cases of epilepsy. This allowed researchers to precisely locate which cells fired during the process of memory formation and recall.

Human medial temporal lobe (MTL) neurons in the brain were studied as subjects were shown the photographs, forming new memories. Pairs of images, showing people and places, were examined by subjects in the study as activity in their MTL cells were monitored. Patterns seen in the neurons when memories were formed took place again when identical places were seen, but not when other locales were viewed. This suggests an underlying process by which memories are formed, and reveals the importance of MTL cells in the process.

Researchers believe this new study could pave the way to a new understanding of treatment methods for people with Alzheimer's disease and other neurological conditions.

"In order to understand and treat such pathologies it is always good to understand how the normal brain process of forming and encoding new memories works to then try to understand what may go wrong in the pathology and how to potentially treat it," said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga from the University of Leicester's Centre for Systems Neuroscience.

Analysis of how the brain changes during the formation of memories was profiled in the journal Neuron.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik | Flickr

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