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M4 Report Summary

Project ID: 323711
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: France

Mid-Term Report Summary - M4 (Memory Mechanisms in Man and Machine)

The M4 project aims to understand "Memory Mechanisms in Man and Machine" and specifically to understand how our brains can store sensory memories that can last a lifetime. Many researchers assume that memories are stored by varying the strength of the synaptic connections that link the billions of neurons that make up the neocortex. But we know that these synapses are being continuously rebuilt. So how is it possible to keep memories stable for several decades? The project is testing a set of 10 provocative claims about how such memories could be stored. Half way through the project it is clear that we have already made a lot of progress, although there is still plenty to do. For example, by using the opening themes from old French TV programs from the 50s, 60s and 70s that we know for sure have never been rebroadcast, we have been able to find clear evidence that people who are now as old as 90 can recognize theme tunes are opening sequences that they have not seen for several decades. We have also been testing sensory memories for meaningless auditory noise patterns that are interesting because they cannot be rehearsed. In parallel with these experimental studies, we have been developing computational models using networks of spiking neurons. Using such models we have found that a simple learning rule that changes the pattern of connections every time a neuron fires a spike can allow sensory patterns to be stored with just a few repetitions. Importantly, we have shown that by making such neurons very selective, we can guarantee that the neuron can potentially retain its memory indefinitely – it effectively will just sit around waiting for the original stimulus (which might be an old TV program) to come back on again. We argue that it is perfectly possible that a large proportion of the neurons in our heads are effectively totally silent while they wait for their preferred stimulus to return!

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