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Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health

Can Stimulating Curiosity Bring Aging Memories Back to Life?

New research says it's easier to learn if you are interested and this curiosity stimulates the brain’s hippocampus where memories form

By Tucker Sutherland, editor

Based on materials from Cell Press

Parts of the human brain graphic by National Institutes of HealthOct. 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 memory.

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 signals flowing.

 

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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 Davis.

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 to reward.

"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 neurons.

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 gone.

Source Materials: Neuron, Gruber et al.: "States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit."

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