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Research into brain damage has scientists in 2 minds about amnesia

Our understanding of how memory breaks down after brain damage may have to be revised according to new research carried out by Morgan Barense and colleagues at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, and recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

This research may have implications for the early diagnosis of brain damage and our approach to rehabilitation.

Until now, scientists believed that structures in the brain’s medial temporal lobe (MTL) made up a single functional system, or module, that supports learning of new memories and was independent of other cognitive functions, such as language and perception. The MRC scientists have now shown, however, that there is a division of labour within the MTL - not all parts support the same type of memory - and also that these parts may play a role in perception as well as memory.

The research was carried out in individuals who had suffered damage to different parts of the MTL, the perirhinal cortex and/or the hippocampus. People with damage to the perirhinal cortex had extreme difficulty in memorising objects when they had several features in common (e.g., comparing pictures of a zebra and a tiger or comparing barcodes) but showed normal learning when the objects looked distinct. As the amount of information to be remembered was identical for similar and dissimilar objects, this result implies an underlying difficulty with perception of objects. In contrast, amnesic individuals with damage limited to another part of the MTL, the hippocampus, performed normally on these tests. This suggests that the hippocampus, long thought to be the neural basis for memory, is not critical for memory for objects, but may, as other experiments have shown, play an important role in spatial memory and perception, for example in remembering a route home from work. The type of material a memory-impaired individual is asked to learn, therefore, influences the likely success of their learning.

MRC lead scientist, Morgan Barense said,

As damage to the medial temporal lobe (MTL) is associated with many types of disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, this research shows that memory may not be as globally affected as previously believed. This has implications for the development of more accurate tests for early diagnosis and differentiation of dementia, as well as for the way we think about rehabilitation of memory loss.



Source: Medical Research Council (MRC), UK.

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