Have we met before? Scientists show why the brain has the answer
Press release issued: 5 August 2011
Have you ever been approached by someone whose face you recognise but whose name you can’t remember? Neuroscientists at the University of Bristol have identified the reasons behind why we are, at times, unable to link a face to a name.
The BBSRC-funded research, led by Dr Clea Warburton and Dr Gareth Barker in the University’s School of Physiology and Pharmacology and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, has investigated why we can recognise faces much better if we have extra clues as to where or indeed when we encountered them in the first place.
The study found that when we need to remember that a particular object, for example a face, occurred in a particular place, or at a particular time, multiple brain regions have to work together - not independently.
It has been known for some time that three brain regions appear to have specific roles in memory processing. The perirhinal cortex seems to be critical for our ability to recognise whether an individual object is novel or familiar, the hippocampus is important for recognising places and for navigation, while the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with higher brain functions.
These most recent studies, however, are the first to look at situations where these brain regions interact all together, rather than considering each one individually.
Dr Warburton said: “We are very excited to discover this important brain circuit. We're now studying how memory information is processed within it, in the hope we can then understand how our own 'internal library' system works.”
The researchers investigated the neural basis of our ability to recognise different types of stimuli under different conditions. Of specific interest were two types of recognition memory: ‘object-in-place recognition memory’ (remembering where we put our keys), and ‘temporal order recognition memory’ (when we last had them).
Neither ‘object-in-place’ or ‘temporal order recognition’ memories could be formed if communication between the hippocampus and either the perirhinal cortex, or the medial prefrontal cortex, was broken. In other words, disconnecting the regions prevented the ability to remember both where objects had been, and in which order.
Finding that these regions must all act together has important implications for understanding memory and helping treat people with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-funded research, entitled ‘When is the hippocampus involved in recognition memory?’ by Dr Clea Warburton and Dr Gareth Barker, is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Neuroscience is one of the key areas of research at the University of Bristol. Furthermore, the city of Bristol has one of the largest concentrations of researchers engaged in neuroscience in the UK, many of whom are internationally recognised. In 2003 Bristol Neuroscience (BN) was established to enable all neuroscientists working in Bristol – both within the University and its partner hospitals across the city – to make full use of all available resources and expertise.
BN runs numerous activities to encourage the dissemination of ideas, to create opportunities for interdisciplinary research, and to facilitate the pursuit of neuroscience to the highest possible standard. For further information on BN please see www.bris.ac.uk/neuroscience or contact Dr Anne Cooke, firstname.lastname@example.org.
BBSRC is one of seven Research Councils that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK). It is funded from the Government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
BBSRC's budget for 2011-12 is around £445M. It supports a total of around 1600 scientists and 2000 research students in universities and institutes in the UK.