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WSU, MIT professors examine memory retention

Study showed pictures to subjects, focused on retention styles of children, adults

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Posted: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 12:00 am

Adults and children process newly learned information differently, according to a collaborative study between Wayne State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Functions related to memory appeared similar between adults and children except for the area of learning and education.

WSU Institute of Gerontology and Department of Pediatrics assistant professor Noa Ofen was the lead author of the study titled “The Development of Brain Systems Associated with Successful Memory Retrieval of Scenes,” and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Participants—adults and children, ranging in age from 8 to 22—were shown pictures of indoor and outdoor scenes.

“There were over 100 pictures, and the indoor ones consisted of kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms, while the outdoor scenes consisted of beaches, mountains and forests,” Ofen said.

Participants were aware that they would need to recall the scenes later, and they were asked to study them. Soon after, they were shown pictures of these same scenes mixed with pictures of new ones. Subjects were then asked whether they had seen each picture before.

While the participants were identifying whether they had seen the pictures before or not, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine which parts of the brains were hard at work. MRIs take advantage of magnetic fields and pulses of radio wave energy to create accurate pictures of the brain, according to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. MRIs are largely useful in generating three dimensional images, even though they are non-invasive.

Increased neural activity in areas of the brain result in increased oxygen flow to those areas. The phenomenon is called the blood-oxygen leveldependent effect. The BOLD effect allowed the research team to check for changes in oxygen flow using MRI scans in order to determine which portions of the brain were being used by the participants of the study.

Researchers examined which regions of the brain were used by participants, both young and old, when correctly identifying whether they had seen the picture before, which is called a “hit.”

“As we compared, we kind of stuck together all the brain images we had to find out what the brain was doing, and contrasted it with what the brain was doing when it correctly identified a new picture,” Ofen said.

According to the study, recognition memory improved with age.

When asked what the primary difference was between recognition of scenes for adults and for children, Ofen said the “prefrontal cortex was more engaged” when the adults correctly identified pictures they had seen before.

“This goes along with what I have seen in previous studies,” she said. “And it’s because adults’ memory is richer and has more detail. It’s likely that these richer memories are achieved by having better brain memory systems.”

Daniel Schacter, a memory expert and psychology professor at Harvard University, said he agrees.

“Memory is not a simple replay,” he told CNN. “The bits of information that we recover from the past are often influenced by our knowledge, beliefs and feelings.”

The response of the parietal cortex was also monitored, and there appears to be no significant difference between the usage of the parietal cortex in adults and in children.

“That makes sense, because there’s been a convergence of evidence that the prefrontal cortex develops later than other brain regions, both functionally and structurally,” John Gabrieli, study researcher, MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences professor and McGovern Institute for Brain Research investigator, told MIT News. “…But this is the first study that asks how this area matures and contributes to learning.”

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