Scientists recreate brain cell networks providing view of activity behind memory formation

University of Pittsburgh researchers have reproduced the brain’s complex electrical impulses onto models made of living brain cells that provide an unprecedented view of the neuron activity behind memory formation.

The team fashioned ring-shaped networks of brain cells that were not only capable of transmitting an electrical impulse, but also remained in a state of persistent activity associated with memory formation, said lead researcher Henry Zeringue [zuh-rang], a bioengineering professor in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. Magnetic resonance images have suggested that working memories are formed when the cortex, or outer layer of the brain, launches into extended electrical activity after the initial stimulus, Zeringue explained. But the brain’s complex structure and the diminutive scale of neural networks mean that observing this activity in real time can be nearly impossible, he added.

The Pitt team, however, was able to generate and prolong this excited state in groups of 40 to 60 brain cells harvested from the hippocampus of rats — the part of the brain associated with memory formation. In addition, the researchers produced the networks on glass slides that allowed them to observe the cells’ interplay.

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