What is memory?
Memory is essentially the brain’s ability to reconstruct the world
around you and the internal representation of that. What I mean by that,
is the brain is not a tape recorder…it’s not recording exactly what’s
going on. It’s recording a representation of what’s going on . Memory is
the brain’s ability that in the future, when you encounter something
that’s similar, then it recalls that information stored inside the
brain. So, that in essence is how you think about memory in human and
Has your research found anything interesting related to dementia?
Yes, and I think that’s the joy of basic sciences. My interest with
my research was trying to figure out how we make memories and how we
hold onto them for a really long time. It turns out that the fundamental
process involved in creating a stable memory is related to amyloids.
Amyloids are important when it comes to age related dementia or
neurodegenerative diseases. My research essentially forced us to rethink
why the brain makes them, why they form, and what happens when they
What do you find most interesting about the brain from a scientist’s perspective?
One thing we need to understand, that I find absolutely fascinating,
is that the brain is actually not seeing, hearing, touching, or sensing
anything. It sits in the dark. All it receives are a series of
electrical signals. From those signals, it’s reconstructing the world
for us. If the brain cannot reconstruct, it does not exist. For example,
if I move my mouth, but don’t talk, you are not hearing anything. But
if you are a bat, you’d have heard it. And the reason is that our brain
cannot sense or create enough signal to hear a change in air pressure—as
opposed to a bat, which can. What the brain does, essentially, is it
gives us an enormous capacity to sense the world and do things, but at
the same time, it can actually limit us. So as a scientist that really
What have you found when examining memories in animals?
My interest was not trying to understand how we come down with these
devastating diseases, my interest was trying to understand how we make
memories. Our answer to that actually lead us to amyloids. What we found
is there are proteins that are different than the ones that cause
disease. They also form a structure that – just like the disease-causing
amyloids – but they actually help animals form and hold on to memory.
So that raises the question, when do amyloids become bad and when do
they become good? Is there a relationship between the good and bad
amyloids in the brain and can it help us to approach these diseases in a
new way that has not been done? Because so far, our attempts to treat
the diseases was to prevent amyloid formation or remove amyloids from
the brain. Our research raises a very dramatically different
possibility. Can we give brain the capacity to form good amyloids as we
get old – and will it help us to form memories? I do not know that
answer, yet. If you’re a fruit fly, I can say for sure. But for humans,
we don’t know yet – but that’s exactly where we want to go and where we
are going. It’s tremendously helpful to science to have access to the
How similar is a human brain to an animal brain?
Our brain is distinct because no other animal is sitting down and
having this conversation like we are right now. But there are some basic
processes, like how do two neurons communicate with each other and how
do they change each other. These are fundamental processes that all
brains, if they are made of neuron, must be utilizing. And that is what
we see in our research. Now whether in our brain they’re simply an
elaboration of those processes, or if we have unique things going on in
our own brain, that is something we learn overtime.
A fruit fly has 150,000 neurons and in a mouse brain there are
millions, but in our brain, we have billions. So, you can imagine that
simply the number suggests there are some unique things going on in our
human brain and that is good for us.
How does memory relate to addiction?
Addiction, at the end, is a disease of memory. Once somebody has used drugs, it is very well documented that if they stop, and they go
back to where they first encountered the drug, they will have the
symptoms as if they are actually taking the drug or experiencing the
effect of that again. So essentially, the drug creates a very strong
memory of what happens when you are taking the drug and the subsequent
events. So, if we really want to understand and treat really chronic
drug related disorders, we really need to understand how we treat memory
What has excited you the most when it comes to scientific advancements?
The biggest advancement is that our ability to see, measure, and
manipulate neurons has dramatically improved. We have gotten to the
stage where we can recall from the human brain the activity center of neurons
and we can predict what the person is thinking. And if you think about
it, that’s really mind boggling and what it means is one day, hopefully,
we’ll be able to read all the electrical activity and figure out what
is it you’re thinking what are you imagining and to me if that happens it
just blows my mind away…it’s just remarkable.
I think we tend to focus on the problems, but I think we should focus
on the amazing capacity of the brain and what a wonderful organ this is
– I think this is the most important part of the human body and we
should cherish it.