Psychologists have recognized for some time now that working memory holds information for short periods as long as you can stay focused. This is the reason that soon after you have seen something, you are still able to imagine it in your head. Researchers have recently unlocked another piece of this puzzle and even though the research conclusions are still preliminary, it may eventually help schizophrenia patients manage or prevent hallucinations.
A team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and McGill University have published a study in Nature Communications explaining how they have isolated the cluster of neurons that help people store visual information.
Probing the brains of two monkeys, macaques who’s brains are comparable to humans, the scientists were able to follow their ability to identify the direction in which an object on the screen moved. They also tracked their ability to recall the information. These tasks were traced to a bundle of neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for complex human thought and behavior, such as the decision to act on something physically after thinking about it. The monkeys use this tiny cluster of neurons in the prefrontal cortex to retain visual details.
Previously there were conflicting ideas on how the neurons worked but the new discoveries show that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Some scientists thought the neurons that analyzed and recognized a picture were separate from those used in working memory. Other scientists believed that the same neurons were responsible for both. It became clear with the use of A.I. to track which tasks were being done by which neurons, that both sides were correct. Some handle both while others do one or the other. It turns out that there is virtually an even split among the neurons that remember, those that recognize, and those that do both. Scientists are still unsure if these are the neurons that information is actually encoded into or if they hold on to these memories with neurons that have not been identified yet.
This cluster of neurons seems to map onto the same region of the brain that is impaired in people experiencing schizophrenic hallucinations. The research is still far removed from human relevance but this could be a step in the direction of targeting medications that currently affect the entire brain. This causes side effects that are widespread and it tends to cause patients to stop taking their medication. Scientists theorize that if therapy can be designed to target this small area of the lateral prefrontal cortex involved with visual memories, they may be able to develop treatments that are more localized and display fewer side effects for patients with schizophrenia.