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Limitless: How long-term memories are erased and how to stop it

limitless remembering everything

Currently, neuroscientists think our brain has about enough storage space to hold the entire internet. That’s a lot of space, about a petabyte in fact — if we are to believe this estimate. So, what did you read in the news this day 5 years ago? Don’t worry, I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning and my long-term memory doesn’t fair much better. However, vital information about how the brain erases long-term memories has been uncovered by researchers.

This has important implications for diseases that cause memory loss like Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, not to mention a way to keep track of your pesky keys.

For those of us who suffer from PTSD, this could be the news that we were waiting for because the findings could help scientists to understand why those unwanted memories are so long-lasting while the stuff you really want to remember, lost loved ones, the location of that treasure you buried because you don’t trust banks, or where you really put that left sock — hint, it wasn’t the dryer, I already checked.

We already know a surprising amount about long-term memory storage, like memories are maintained by chemical signalling between brain cells that relies on specialised receptors called AMPA receptors. The more AMPA receptors there are on the surface where brain cells connect, the stronger the memory, which means the easier it is to recall when you really need it.

However, we didn’t know much about how memories are given the boot, or rather forgotten. The team of researchers found that the process of actively wiping memories happens when brain cells remove AMPA receptors from the connections between brain cells, no AMPA receptors no… I forget.

This happens naturally over time and we don’t have a whole lot of control over it, if the memory is not recalled regularly, the AMPA receptors may fall in number. This would theoretically make the memory harder to recall and then eventually the memory is gradually erased. Right now you are probably thinking “stupid brain, what good is that”? Well, researchers also showed that actively forgetting information in this way helps the animals to adapt their behaviour according to their surroundings.

So you can thank evolution for not being able to recall all that information you got at the beginning of your class come final time. Blocking the removal of AMPA receptors with a drug that keeps them at the surface of the cell stopped the natural forgetting of memories, the study found.

Since we love good movies around here — especially as of late — like the movie Limitless, what if we could remember everything? Good question, such a good question, in fact, the researchers wondered the same thing. By blocking the removal of AMPA receptors with a drug that keeps them at the surface of the cell stopped the natural forgetting of memories.

More importantly for those who suffer memory loss — which is the real reason for the research after all. Shame on you for being selfish — drugs that target AMPA receptor removal are already being investigated as potential therapies to help prevent that aforementioned memory loss. The research could be a boon for people living with Alzheimers and dementia, or you know… anyone wanting to not forget all the time.

Unfortunately, and let’s be real, there is always an unfortunately when we are talking about the brain, we probably don’t remember everything for a good reason. In fact, researchers say that active forgetting could be an important facet of learning and memory. Further research is needed to understand what consequences blocking this process could have on the ability to take on new information and retrieve existing memories.

“Our study looks at the biological processes that happen in the brain when we forget something. The next step is to work out why some memories survive whilst others are erased.”

“If we can understand how these memories are protected, it could one-day lead to new therapies that stop or slow pathological memory loss,” said Dr. Oliver Hardt.

Bottom line? Could we live in a world where you never forgot anything? Yeah, maybe one day, but it would probably make living a little harder than you would think and really it could make accurate recall awkward. Think about what happens when you have to sort through all those similar memories of where you parked your car at work.

So maybe you should just look at the lives of Alzheimer’s patients that could be changed by just being able to remember their family or significant others and be happy with that for now.

Migues, P., Liu, L., Archbold, G., Einarsson, E., Wong, J., Bonasia, K., Ko, S., Wang, Y., & Hardt, O. (2016). Blocking Synaptic Removal of GluA2-Containing AMPA Receptors Prevents the Natural Forgetting of Long-Term Memories Journal of Neuroscience, 36 (12), 3481-3494 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3333-15.2016

10 responses

  1. Dr Ruth 2point0 (Anna)

    One of my favorite psychological study showed the reason we forget things when walking into a different room is because the brain has to assimilate a new environment. They found if you go back to the room you were in before, you will often remember what you were doing. I think this shows, with the right trigger, memories can be restored


    March 31, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    • Well I don’t know about restored, but as far as long term memories go, it would be nice if they could be protected if they are important, or in the case of Alzheimer’s, if they could be protected at all.

      I do like the study you mentioned, it also brings up an interesting question. Say you have a bad experience, but can no longer recall the memory of that experience. Can a similar experience later on in life trigger the emotional response of the lost memory?

      Sort of like being angry about something, but not knowing exactly why.

      Although trying to determine that in a scientific setting and proving that it was because of a latent emotional response from a forgotten memory would be difficult or maybe even impossible to accomplish.


      April 1, 2016 at 11:31 am

      • Dr Ruth 2point0 (Anna)

        Absolutely it’s a double edged sword.


        April 1, 2016 at 1:10 pm

  2. sharonp1us

    Is it OK for anyone to comment? What I’ve read recently say’s we sort of remember. We remember how we feel, and often we throw in a lifetime of stuff to create a sloppy, collection of similar events which we then use to make our everyday decisions. We have a conflict when something triggers a painful event that could be associated with a lot of useful stuff. It’s not as easy as, I forget the pain of childbirth because that work is done and the baby is beautiful. It seems like the problem convincingly the brain that work is done.


    March 31, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    • Of course anyone can comment! As long as you aren’t spam or trying to sell something everyone is welcome here.

      I think you and I are wondering basically what I wrote to Dr Ruth 2point0. Are emotional responses and memories that form those responses linked or are they separate enough that when you forget something bad, you no longer will respond the same way you would if you still had that memory.

      It will be interesting to see what the future of neuroscience holds for us, also welcome to the labs and thank you for taking time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 1, 2016 at 11:36 am

  3. Jesse

    After reading I tried to think back to some old memories and see how much I could really remember about certain things that stuck out and I could think of a few things, others are just faint memories or I cannot recall it at all. It is amazing how the brain works. I mean even a familiar scent that we smell can bring us back to when we first encountered such aroma, yet I can not even remember what I did the week before, let alone an important conversation I had with my parents the other day! The brain is truly amazing and it is even crazier that maybe one day we can remember even more than we do now.


    April 1, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    • I think it would be interesting, the idea to be able to recall anything has a lot of incredible connotations for education, but even more when it comes to remembering past events that we really would prefer to never forget. Thanks for taking the time to comment and sharing your own experiences.


      April 2, 2016 at 11:04 am

  4. Jesse

    After reading this article, I tried to remember a few things that stuck out in my life, certain things I could remember and others I could not. It amazes me how the brain works, even a simple scent can take us back to when we first encountered that aroma. When I try to think of what I did last week, I have trouble because I can barely remember what I ate last night. Science is an amazing thing. I find the brain to be very amusing.


    April 1, 2016 at 8:51 pm

  5. Haley

    This could be very important research for patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, considering there is currently no drug that could be considered highly effective for the treatment. While the act of forgetting things may be in place for a reason, patients with Alzheimer’s gradually begin to forget things that are vital to survival and healthy living. From experience, with both my mother and sister working in a nursing home, the majority of the residents who suffer with the disease spend a majority of their time in a state of discomfort; from confusion and fear. Of course, Alzheimer’s does not exclusively effect the elderly – the onset can happen before the age of 40, though it does become more common with age.

    I’m also curious how a drug that can affect the longevity of AMPA receptors would fair with people suffering from amnesia.


    April 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    • That is a good question, amnesia is a weird thing though so it may not be beneficial. Then again, it would help if we understood what causes it so it may actually work.


      April 16, 2016 at 11:18 am

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