Just one brain cell is capable of holding fleeting memories vital for our everyday life, according to US scientists.
A study of mouse brain cells revealed how they could keep information stored for as long as a minute. A UK specialist said that understanding these short-term memories might help unlock the secrets of Alzheimer's Disease. The finding was reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The difference between the brain's long-term and short-term memory has been likened to the RAM of a computer and the hard-drive. To perform normal functions, we need the ability to store, quickly and reliably, large amounts of data, but only a small amount of this needs to be retained in the longer term.
Scientists have spent decades working out which parts of the brain are responsible for these functions, and how cells manage this feat. Original theories suggested the memories were retained by multiple cells forming "circuits" around which electrical impulses were fired for the necessary period. More recent ideas have centred around the concept that even an individual cell could somehow hold on to information.
Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern looked at brain cells taken from mice using tiny electrodes to measure their function. They found that a particular component of the cells in question, a chemical receptor, which, when switched on, tells the cell to start an internal signal system that holds the "memory" in place.