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Memory research: Ground-breaking, Applied, and Technological Exchanges

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Understanding the hippocampus: training the next generation of experts

An EU-funded project has brought together 14 early-stage researchers to unravel how the hippocampus contributes to memory – an area that has fascinated people for centuries.

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The hippocampus is a complex brain structure in the inner folds of the bottom middle section of the brain, known as the temporal lobe. It is pivotal to learning and the ability to form memories. There are a number of things that can cause hippocampus damage, including Alzheimer’s disease and seizures. When this happens, the hippocampus contributes to making life challenging, heightening the need for further knowledge and treatment options for disorders affecting hippocampus functioning. Meeting this need and with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, the EU-funded M-GATE project recruited 14 talented early-stage researchers (ESRs) as part of the M-GATE training programme. They were provided with the opportunity to combine state-of-the-art experimental and theoretical approaches to unravel memory mechanisms in healthy and diseased brain. The project’s main goal was to understand how the hippocampus contributes to memory. “In doing so, the project brings a fully scientific perspective to a philosophical problem, the essence of human memory, which has fascinated people for centuries. We also had the opportunity to provide critical insight for advancing clinical treatment of disorders,” explains Francesco Battaglia, professor at the Donders Centre for Neuroscience in the Netherlands and project coordinator.

Advancing knowledge on the hippocampus

The ESRs were provided with training by top-class scientists in both the academic and private sector, opportunities for secondment, and a tailored joint training programme in interdisciplinary skills, contributing to their future employability. “Three of the ESRs had purely computational projects, while the remaining 11 had experimental projects,” outlines Battaglia. Some of the work the ESRs were involved in included research into neural codes in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe. “ESRs shed new light on the temporal organisation of spikes, and their information-processing consequences, the ways interneurons synergistically control the activity of neural populations and on how information, for example about object identity, is encoded by neurons,” notes Battaglia. As part of this, they also studied decision making in rats and humans in parallel and used the collected data to inform a computational model. Another area worked on was neurotechnology for the investigation of circuits. “ESRs developed a number of advances in electrophysiological and imaging techniques, which will be useful for our groups and other researchers,” adds Battaglia. Additionally, they looked at the global dynamics in the medial temporal lobe. This led to the development of a novel behavioural task on a very large maze that enables the study of how the brain reacts to updates in memories.

Proving key insights into neuroscience of memory

“At the end of this project, we can say that the research performed by the fellows, the training they received, and their personal growth were at the level that we expected when M-GATE began. All M-GATE ESR projects are at the forefront of the research on neuroscience of memory,” confirms Battaglia. A large amount of data and new findings, on the dynamics of neural networks, from the scale of a single hippocampal subfield, or cortical layer, to the global activity of the medial temporal lobe and the cortex as a whole, were generated in the project. In fact, the project generated 18 publications and submitted 10 manuscripts for review, amongst others. “This open data will represent a boon for future theoretical and experimental research by the partner groups and other researchers,” concludes Battaglia.

Keywords

M-GATE, hippocampus, memory, ESR, training, early-stage researchers, neuroscience of memory, clinical treatment

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29 November 2022