New Images Improve Memory
> 8/7/2006 10:10:38 AM

In this month's Neuron, a study from the University College of London indicates that the brain responds to novel experiences in a way that refreshes functions and encourages further learning. An area of the midbrain called the substantia nigra, which regulates levels of the chemical dopamine, responds in a much more dramatic way to unfamiliar stimuli. The brain uses dopamine to predict which behaviors will lead to rewards, and overall levels sink when stimuli become overly familiar. Patterns of effort and reward reinforce certain behaviors, and the brain has to process information faster and more thoroughly when said stimuli has not been seen before. Because of this process, consistently providing the brain with newer information may help refresh the memory on all counts. This study may prove significant in treating memory deficiencies and it may affect millions worldwide, as previous experiments indicate that a large percentage of us do not remember things as clearly as we would like to believe.

Many traditional treatments for those with memory problems involve repeatedly exposing subjects to certain stimuli, much like commonly practiced forms of studying for a test. Based on UCL's findings, these methods are probably not the most effective. In their experiments, subjects viewed a series of images. Some were strange, rare, or pointedly negative, but researchers found that the midbrain only registered significant responses to new stimuli. In a separate area of the study, researchers measured how well the subjects recalled the information presented, finding that they performed best when novel elements had been mixed with familiar images. It would then appear that, with the new images mixed in, patients remembered familar stimuli better as well. Lead researcher Emrah Duzel sums up the study's findings:

“When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. The brain learns that the stimulus, once familiar, has no reward associated with it and so it loses its potential. For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.”

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