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No. 49: Jan-Feb 1987

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Million-cell memories?

Brain researchers have long believed that simple memories were stored as "traces" in chains of brain cells. However, E.R. John and his colleagues have confounded such thinking. They have prepared metabolic memory maps of cats' brains using carbon-tagging. In this way, they discern which parts of the brains have been activated during the recall of an element of memory. Such experimentation has demonstrated that huge numbers of brain cells actively participate in the recall of a simple thought. John stated, "I thought we'd find maybe 20,000 to 40,000 cells involved in the learned memory....The shock was that it was so easy to see wide-spread metabolic change....The number of brain cells [between 5 million and 100 million] involved in the memory for a simple learned discrimination made up about one-tenth of the whole brain."

The findings of John et al are hotly contested by some brain researchers. One obvious conflict is that if up to 100 million brain cells are involved in storing just one simple memory, the brain will quickly use up all available cells. It must be that individual brain cells can participate in the storage of many different memories. The conventional mem-ory-trace theory would have to be replaced by a new type of memory architecture.

(Bower, Bruce; "Million-Cell Memories," Science News, 130:313, 1986)

Comment. Our thinking about biological memory may be controlled by our preoccupation with the two-dimensional circuits of computer memories. Biological memories might be three-dimensional, or of even higher order. Some scientists have ventured that memory might entail electrical charge distribution patterns in the brain; such need not be limited to two dimensions. The same thinking can be applied to the storage of genetic information. While DNA, RNA, etc., may be pieces in the puzzle, the complete solution may include the ways in which these molecules are bent, twisted, convoluted, arrayed, juxtaposed, and so on.

In a letter relating to the above article, P.J. Rosch points out that John's results are consistent with the holographic theory of brain function supported by Pribram and Bohm.

"In a hologram, every element of the subject is distributed throughout the photographic plate, making it possible to reconstruct the entire original image from any portion of the picture. In this paradigm, the brain stores memory and deals with interactions by interpreting and integrating frequencies, retaining the data not in a localized area but dispersed throughout its substance."
(Rosch, Paul J.; "The Brain as Hologram," Science News, 130:355, 1986.)

Comment. Curiously enough, the same issue of Science News carries an advertisement for the book The Fabric of Mind, in which R. Bergland:

"...offers the revolutionary theory, already stirring controversy among fellow researchers, that the brain is actually a gland and depends on changes of hormones and molecules for its function....While he does not deny that electrical impulses occur in the brain, they are only superficial signals, he says, and not as important in conveying messages to the brain and within it, as hormones are."

Comment. Obviously, no consensus yet exists as to brain-functioning and memory.

Reference. More on the possible biological basis of memory may be found in BHO23 in our catalog: Biological Anomalies: Humans II. To order, visit: here.

From Science Frontiers #49, JAN-FEB 1987. � 1987-2000 William R. Corliss