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  • Mid-Term Report Summary - TRANSMEM (Fast transformation between episodic and semantic memories: Interactions between the hippocampal formation and related regions and their breakdown in Alzheimer’s disease)

TRANSMEM Report Summary

Project ID: 337822
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Mid-Term Report Summary - TRANSMEM (Fast transformation between episodic and semantic memories: Interactions between the hippocampal formation and related regions and their breakdown in Alzheimer’s disease)

Memory is far more than a simple exercise of taking in new information, storing it, and then retrieving at a later point. Our prior knowledge affects how we interpret events as they happen, and the degree to which we retrieve and rehearse events affects how they are stored and how quickly they are forgotten. Understanding these processes is essential if we are to answer important questions about how memory works. Why do we remember some things but not others? How quickly do we forget? Why does Alzheimer’s disease cause memory problems?

The “TRANSMEM” project is a five year European Research Council (ERC) funded project led by Dr Chris Bird. The aim of this project is to understand how humans remember complex, lifelike events over delays of days and weeks. To this end, we have developed new techniques to investigate memory, using video clips showing realistic situations and collecting detailed descriptions of people’s memory for the clips. To identify the brain regions associated with the creation and rehearsal of new memories we carry out our tests in an MRI scanner and use state-of-the-art techniques to analyse the data. Part of our research is carried out with healthy young participants but importantly we also investigate memory in adults with memory problems. Many of these adults are in the earliest stages of dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease and we hope that our studies will help us understand the links between brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease and the devastating effects that this has on memory.

Over the last 2.5 years, the TRANSMEM project has evolved from a series of planned experiments to a cohesive team of researchers who have carried out six separate projects and scanned more than 200 people whilst they carry out different memory tasks. We have developed the skills to analyse these complex datasets and discovered new and important insights into memory processes and how they are carried out by the brain. We showed that by asking people to rehearse the details of events they had just witnessed we dramatically improved memory for these events two weeks later. We further demonstrated that this rehearsal-related improvement was associated with replay of the memories in a region of the brain called the posterior cingulate; a region affected very early in the course of Alzheimer’s disease. These findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience and reported widely in the media. We have gone on to show that the posterior cingulate continues to play a role in memory at much longer delays, emphasising its central role in memory processes.

In other studies we have identified the brain regions involved in understanding the narrative content of complex events – when we have to use what we saw before to understand what happens later. We have also investigated the brain processes involved in learning new information by trial-and-error or when it is necessary to build memories over several occasions.

Over the next 2.5 years the TRANSMEM project will build on these discoveries. We will clarify why we remember some things but forget others and the brain regions that are involved in the creation of durable memories. We will try and translate our findings about memory in the healthy brain to understanding memory breakdown in Alzheimer’s disease. Importantly, this will include developing learning techniques that we hope will be beneficial to individuals with memory problems.

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United Kingdom
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