How do memories work? That has been a burning question for over a century, since Richard Semon introduced the term “Engram” in the early 20th century as the fundamental unit of memory in the brain.
Over the last 12 years or so scientists have been making incredible advances in understanding the nature of engrams, and this concept has returned to scientific utility. A recent paper reviews this research and our current understanding: Memory engrams: Recalling the past and imagining the future., by Sheena A. Josselyn and Susumu Tonegawa. Here are the key insights.
The research suggests that engrams are an ensemble of neurons that encode a specific memory and fire together when that memory is recalled. Further, the engram is part of a greater engram complex, that included neurons in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are already known to be critical to memory formation. Further still, memories can be recalled by activating overlapping related memories.
This is still early days. Good research like this introduces more questions than it answers. It is probably too early to say that the engram concept is established enough to be considered a scientific fact, but it’s getting there.
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