Brains Are Different in People With Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory

ScienceDaily (July 30, 2012) — UC Irvine scientists have discovered intriguing differences in the brains and mental processes of an extraordinary group of people who can effortlessly recall every moment of their lives since about age 10.

UC Irvine scientists have discovered intriguing differences in the brains and mental processes of an extraordinary group of people who can effortlessly recall every moment of their lives since about age 10. (Credit: © James Steidl / Fotolia)


The phenomenon of highly superior autobiographical memory — first documented in 2006 by UCI neurobiologist James McGaugh and colleagues in a woman identified as “AJ” — has been profiled on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and in hundreds of other media outlets. But a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Neurobiology of Learning & Memory‘s July issue offers the first scientific findings about nearly a dozen people with this uncanny ability.

All had variations in nine structures of their brains compared to those of control subjects, including more robust white matter linking the middle and front parts. Most of the differences were in areas known to be linked to autobiographical memory, “so we’re getting a descriptive, coherent story of what’s going on,” said lead author Aurora LePort, a doctoral candidate at UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.

Surprisingly, the people with stellar autobiographical memory did not score higher on routine laboratory memory tests or when asked to use rote memory aids. Yet when it came to public or private events that occurred after age 10½, “they were remarkably better at recalling the details of their lives,” said McGaugh, senior author on the new work.

“These are not memory experts across the board. They’re 180 degrees different from the usual memory champions who can memorize pi to a large degree or other long strings of numbers,” LePort noted. “It makes the project that much more interesting; it really shows we are homing in on a specific form of memory.”

She said interviewing the subjects was “baffling. You give them a date, and their response is immediate. The day of the week just comes out of their minds; they don’t even think about it. They can do this for so many dates, and they’re 99 percent accurate. It never gets old.”

The study also found statistically significant evidence of obsessive-compulsive tendencies among the group, but the authors do not yet know if or how this aids recollection. Many of the individuals have large, minutely catalogued collections of some sort, such as magazines, videos, shoes, stamps or postcards.

UCI researchers and staff have assessed more than 500 people who thought they might possess highly superior autobiographical memory and have confirmed 33 to date, including the 11 in the paper. Another 37 are strong candidates who will be further tested.

“The next step is that we want to understand the mechanisms behind the memory,” LePort said. “Is it just the brain and the way its different structures are communicating? Maybe it’s genetic; maybe it’s molecular.”

McGaugh added: “We’re Sherlock Holmeses here. We’re searching for clues in a very new area of research.”

 

Link:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-07/uoc–bad073012.php

Journal Reference:

  1. Aurora K.R. LePort, Aaron T. Mattfeld, Heather Dickinson-Anson, James H. Fallon, Craig E.L. Stark, Frithjof Kruggel, Larry Cahill, James L. McGaugh. Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 2012; 98 (1): 78 DOI: 10.1016/j.nlm.2012.05.002

Citation:

University of California – Irvine (2012, July 30). Brains are different in people with highly superior autobiographical memory. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/07/120730170341.htm

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When Rules Change, Brain Falters

ScienceDaily (July 30, 2012) — For the human brain, learning a new task when rules change can be a surprisingly difficult process marred by repeated mistakes, according to a new study by Michigan State University psychology researchers.

A cap worn by subjects in a Michigan State University experiment picks up EEG signals at the scalp; the signals are then transmitted via optical cable to a computer where the data is stored for analysis. (Credit: Photo by G.L. Kohuth)


Imagine traveling to Ireland and suddenly having to drive on the left side of the road. The brain, trained for right-side driving, becomes overburdened trying to suppress the old rules while simultaneously focusing on the new rules, said Hans Schroder, primary researcher on the study.

“There’s so much conflict in your brain,” said Schroder, “that when you make a mistake like forgetting to turn on your blinker you don’t even realize it and make the same mistake again. What you learned initially is hard to overcome when rules change.”

The study, in the research journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, is one of the first to show how the brain responds to mistakes that occur after rules change.

Study participants were given a computer task that involved recognizing the middle letter in strings such as “NNMNN” or “MMNMM.” If “M” was in the middle, they were to press the left button; if “N” was in the middle, they were to press the right. After 50 trials, the rules were reversed so the participants had to press the right button if “M” was in the middle and the left if “N” was in the middle.

Participants made more repeated errors when the rules were reversed, meaning they weren’t learning from their mistakes. In addition, a cap measuring brain activity showed they were less aware of their errors. When participants did respond correctly after the rules changed, their brain activity showed they had to work harder than when they were given the first set of rules.

“We expected they were going to get better at the task over time,” said Schroder, a graduate student in MSU’s Department of Psychology. “But after the rules changed they were slower and less accurate throughout the task and couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.”

Continually making these mistakes in the work environment can lead to frustration, exhaustion and even anxiety and depression, said Jason Moser, assistant professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab.

“These findings and our past research suggest that when you have multiple things to juggle in your mind — essentially, when you are multitasking — you are more likely to mess up,” Moser said. “It takes effort and practice for you to be more aware of the mistakes you are missing and stay focused.”

In addition to Schroder and Moser, co-researchers include Erik Altmann, associate professor of psychology, and master’s student Tim Moran.

 

Link:

http://news.msu.edu/story/when-rules-change-brain-falters/

Journal Reference:

  1. Hans S. Schroder, Tim P. Moran, Jason S. Moser, Erik M. Altmann. When the rules are reversed: Action-monitoring consequences of reversing stimulus–response mappings. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 2012; DOI: 10.3758/s13415-012-0105-y

Citation:

Michigan State University (2012, July 30). When rules change, brain falters. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/07/120730124239.htm

Mindreading Hormone? A Better Judge of Character With Nasal Spray?

ScienceDaily (July 30, 2012) — Ingesting the hormone oxytocin via nasal spray improves the ability to read people’s facial expressions. These findings hold great promise for treatment of mental health disorders and drug addiction.

An instrument was used to measure dilation of the pupils and how test subjects focused their gaze while solving tasks on a computer screen in front of them. (Credit: Olga Chelnokova)


In other contexts, oxytocin is already well-known as the “bliss hormone.” The hormone is secreted upon stimulation by touch and is known to result in a feeling of calm and physical relaxation. It is also used to induce labour in childbirth and as an aid for women experiencing difficulties in breastfeeding.

Oxytocin has also been referred to as a “mindreading” hormone. Recent research findings show that there may be some truth to these claims — although the mindreading component may have a more down-to-earth explanation.

Angry people seemed angrier

As part of a research project carried out by Siri Leknes, a research fellow at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, 40 healthy students were administered nasal spray containing a dose of either saltwater or oxytocin. They were subsequently shown photographs of faces displaying angry, happy or neutral expressions. Some of the photos showed individuals displaying more “hidden” emotional expressions which tend to be picked up at a more subconscious level.

“We found that oxytocin intensified test subjects’ awareness of the emotions present in the photos. Faces expressing anger stood out as angrier and less happy, and correspondingly, faces expressing happiness were happier,” explains Dr Leknes.

“We know that people express feelings in other ways than through facial expression alone, for example, by means of body language and vocalisation. We presume that our findings also apply for these modes of expression,” she adds.

The study receives funding under the Research Council of Norway’s Alcohol and Drug Research Programme (RUSMIDDEL).

Greatest effect on those who need it the most

There were two rounds to the experiment to ensure that all student subjects were tested using both salt water and oxytocin — without letting them know which dose they would be receiving each time.

“It turns out that those with the lowest aptitude for judging emotional expression properly — that is, those with the poorest scores during the saltwater round — were the ones who showed the greatest improvement using oxytocin. This is really fascinating; the people who need it the most are thus the ones who get the most out of using the hormone,” Dr Leknes points out.

Based on previous research along with her own findings, Dr Leknes believes in oxytocin’s potential as a supplementary treatment for people suffering from mental health disorders or drug-dependency. In fact, nearly all mental health disorders involve a diminished ability to recognise the feelings of others. The same applies for drug abusers.

“Oxytocin will not be a cure-all for mental illness or drug addiction, but it may be of use as a supplementary treatment. It may make individuals better equipped to interpret the signals of others around them, which may improve how they function in social settings,” Dr Leknes explains.

Testing for treatment of drug abuse up next

Oxytocin nasal spray is available via prescription and is relatively safe when used as directed. Side effects are extremely rare. According to Dr Leknes, doctors are already allowed to prescribe oxytocin for the treatment of various problems associated with social functionality such as autism.

“In such cases, however, it’s a matter of isolated treatments which are not evaluated as a whole. It is important that we research this to gain greater insight into the effect,” she points out.

Siri Leknes and her colleagues are now hoping to take their efforts a step further and examine how well oxytocin works as a supplementary treatment for drug abusers.

“If it turns out that our assumptions are correct, then we may be able to come up with a simple treatment that would mean a great deal for people who find it difficult to pick up on the social cues of their peers,” says Dr Leknes.

 

Link:

http://www.forskningsradet.no/en/Newsarticle/A_better_judge_of_character_with_nasal_spray/1253978889915/p1177315753918

Citation:

The Research Council of Norway (2012, July 30). Mindreading hormone? A better judge of character with nasal spray?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/07/120730094909.htm