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Researchers found synapse connections that strengthen when the sea slug learns to suck in its gills, and molecules that cause this change.

Every molecule tells a story

Remarkably, human neurons have similar molecules. So what's that got to do with your favorite memory? And what makes those connections a network is the fact that those specific connections, those synapses, can be adjusted with stronger or weaker signals. So every experience—every pinch to the gills—has the potential to reroute the relative strengths of all those neuronal connections. But it would be a mistake to believe that those molecules, or even the synapses they control, are memories.

John Emsley, 8 May 2012

This is because of a property called plasticity, the feature of neurons that memorize. The memory is the system itself. And there's evidence of memory-making throughout the tree of life, even in creatures with no nervous system—scientists have trained bacteria to anticipate a flash of a light. Kukushkin explains that primitive memories, like the sea slug's response, are advantageous on an evolutionary scale.

Human memories—even the most precious—begin at a very granular scale. Your mother's face began as a barrage of photons on your retina, which sent a signal to your visual cortex.

You hear her voice, and your auditory cortex transforms the sound waves into electrical signals. Hormones layer the experience with with context—this person makes you feel good. These and a virtually infinite number of other inputs cascade across your brain.


Kukushkin says your neurons, their attendant molecules, and resultant synapses encode all these related perturbations in terms of the relative time they occurred. More, they package the whole experience within a so-called time window. Obviously, no memory exists all by itself.

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Brains break down experience into multiple timescales experienced simultaneously, like sound is broken down into different frequencies perceived simultaneously. This is a nested system, with individual memories existing within multiple time windows of varying lengths. And time windows include every part of the memory, including molecular exchanges of information that are invisible at the scale you actually perceive the event you are remembering. Yes, this is very hard for neuroscientists to understand too.

Which means it's going to be a long time before they understand the nuts and bolts of memory formation. At the moment, however, projects like the Human Connectome represent the cutting edge, and they are still working on a complete picture of the brain at a standstill. Like memory itself, putting that project into motion is all a matter of time. Related Stories.

And Everyone Else's. Nick Stockton. Jonah Lehrer. It combines the science and history of certain molecules and deals with the chemistry of each substance in an interesting and easily understandable manner. Topics covered include substances found in air and water, food, hydrocarbons, acids and alkalis, natural killers, unnatural killers, destructive molecules, pleasure molecules, natural healers, man-made healers, giant molecules, and vitamins"-- Provided by publisher.

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Albert Campbell. Barbara Frum. Don Mills. Lillian H. On loan.

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