2, 2014 - The more interested we are in a topic, the easier it is to
learn about that topic, according to new research published today in the
journal Neuron. For most of us, it is surprising that it took a
research study to make the discovery. But, then again, it could be a new
direction for efforts to improve memory in the healthy elderly and to
develop new approaches for treating patients with disorders that affect
For example, the brain circuits that rely on
dopamine, a chemical released by nerve cells to send
signals to other nerve cells,
tend to decline in function as people get older, or sooner
in people with neurological conditions. Understanding the relationship
between motivation and memory could help find ways to keep the brain
June 23, 2014 - The evidence continues to mount that the way to protect against
the common cognitive decline seen in too many senior citizens is to maintain a
lifestyle of intellectual enrichment throughout life
Maybe senior citizens do not learn as much about
new technologies, or other new innovations, just because their interests
have not been sufficiently aroused. Maybe they forget things just
because they have lost interest in them. Maybe enhanced curiosity can
bring the senior brain to life.
"Our findings potentially have far-reaching
implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form
of intrinsic motivation – curiosity - affects memory. These findings
suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings,"
says lead author Dr. Matthias Gruber, of University of California at
For the study, participants rated their curiosity
to learn the answers to a series of trivia questions. When they were
later presented with a selected trivia question, there was a 14 second
delay before the answer was provided, during which time the participants
were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated face.
Afterwards, participants performed a surprise
recognition memory test for the faces that were presented, followed by a
memory test for the answers to the trivia questions. During certain
parts of the study, participants had their brains scanned via functional
magnetic resonance imaging.
The study revealed three major findings.
First, as expected, when people were highly curious
to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning that
information. More surprising, however, was that once their curiosity was
aroused, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information
(face recognition) that they encountered but were not necessarily
curious about. People were also better able to retain the information
learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay.
"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows
it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks
in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,"
explains Dr. Gruber.
Second, the investigators found that when curiosity
is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related
"We showed that intrinsic motivation actually
recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in
tangible, extrinsic motivation," says Dr. Gruber. This reward circuit
relies on dopamine, a chemical messenger that relays messages between
Third, the team discovered that when curiosity
motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a
brain region that is important for forming new memories, as well as
increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit.
"So curiosity recruits the reward system, and
interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put
the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain
information, even if that information is not of particular interest or
importance," explains principal investigator Dr. Charan Ranganath, also
of UC Davis.
The hippocampus has been an
important part of the brain in research concerning memory loss in senior
citizens. Studies have established that people with Alzheimer’s disease
often have impairments in hippocampal function.
The hippocampus is important to
relational memory – the ability to bind together various items of an
event, for example.
Being able to connect a person’s
name with his or her face is an example of relational memory. These two
pieces of information are stored in different parts of the brain, but
the hippocampus “binds” them so that the next time you see that person,
you remember his or her name.
Maybe this new research –
emphasizing the ability of curiosity to stimulate activity in the
hippocampus – can point the way to something that will pull the aging
brain out of its slumber and bring to life memories once thought long
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