Paying Attention Helps You Remember According to New Research By MIT Neuroscientists

December 5th, 2013 No Comments Other

Paying attention isn’t something that most people consciously think about, but new research by MIT neuroscientists indicates that it might actually be a good idea to deliberately focus on being attentive while studying or learning new things.

The study, which was published in a recent online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that a particular neural circuit makes the brain more likely to remember when it is in an attentive state.

This circuit relies on a certain type of brain cell that was long thought to play only a supporting role in neural processing.

During attentive states, brain cells known as astrocytes, send messages to neurons in the visual cortex that inform them to respond strongly to any visual information they may be receiving at the time.

When the brain is paying attention to specific visual stimulus, the nucleus basalis, a structure within the brain, floods the brain with a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This acetylcholine then targets the astrocytes in the visual cortex and forms a memory.

In their study, the researchers studied the reaction of mice to certain stimulation and measured what went on in the visual cortex when they were shown visual patterns made up of various parallel lines.

In one experiment, the researchers stimulated the mice’s brains into paying attention to ensure that the nucleus basalis would release acetylcholine while the mice were shown the stimuli, while in the second experiment, they used genetically modified mice whose astrocytes had been disabled.

When they were shown the same stimuli some minutes later, the mice whose astrocytes had been active had a much stronger response in the neurons of the visual cortex to the patterns that had been presented to them along with acetylcholine stimulation.

In the genetically modified mice, the acetylene released by the nucleus basalis did nothing to strengthen the neurons’ response to visual stimuli, and the mice showed no signs of increased long-term memory.

The researchers note that this study in particular very clearly demonstrates the important role that astrocytes play in the brain’s plasticity.

“If you are paying attention to something, which causes this release of acetylcholine, that leads to a long-lasting memory of that stimulus. If you remove the astrocytes, that doesn’t happen,” commented Mriganka Sur, Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and the study’s lead author.

She points out that their findings are the latest in a growing body of research that suggests that astrocytes are critical to the processing of sensory information in the brain.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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