Individuals exhibit substantial variations in their memory capabilities. A study by the University of Basel has now identified a connection between specific brain signals and these differences in memory performance.
Although it is established that particular areas of the brain are essential for memory functions, it has remained unclear whether these regions demonstrate varying activity levels related to the storage of information in individuals with differing memory performance levels.
Having investigated this matter, a research team led by Professor Dominique de Quervain and Professor Andreas Papassotiropoulos has now published its results in the journal Nature Communications.
In the world’s largest functional imaging study on memory, they asked nearly 1,500 participants between the ages of 18 and 35 to look at and memorize a total of 72 images. During this process, the researchers recorded the subjects’ brain activity using MRI. The participants were then asked to recall as many of the images as possible – and as in the general population, there were considerable differences in memory performance among them.
Signals in brain regions and networks
In certain brain regions including the hippocampus, the researchers found a direct association between brain activity during the memorization process and subsequent memory performance. Individuals with a better memory showed a stronger activation of these brain areas. No such association was found for other memory-relevant brain areas in the occipital cortex – they were equally active in individuals with all levels of memory performance.
The researchers were also able to identify functional networks in the brain that were linked to memory performance. These networks comprise different brain regions that communicate with each other to enable complex processes such as the storage of information.
“The findings help us to better understand how differences in memory performance occur between one individual and another,” said Dr. Léonie Geissmann, the study’s first author, adding that the brain signals of a single individual do not allow for any conclusions to be drawn about their memory performance, however.
According to the researchers, the results are of great importance for future research aimed at linking biological characteristics such as genetic markers to brain signals.
Basel-based research on memory
The current study forms part of a large-scale research project conducted by the Research Cluster Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences (MCN) at the University of Basel’s Department of Biomedicine and the University Psychiatric Clinics (UPK) Basel. The aim of this project is to gain a better understanding of memory processes and to transfer the findings from basic research into clinical applications.
Reference: “Neurofunctional underpinnings of individual differences in visual episodic memory performance” by Léonie Geissmann, David Coynel, Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Dominique J. F. de Quervain, 14 September 2023, Nature Communications.