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Memory and the brain

How Memory Works

Help Linked Module: Scientists See Memory Creation

If we want to compare the neurotransmitters released into a synapse to keys that are inserted into locks, we can say that it is mainly the locks (proteins) that will be chemically modified so that they become more sensitive and hence open more readily.

Moreover, if the synapse is stimulated for long enough, new “locks” may also be manufactured by the genes and inserted into the neural membrane alongside the existing ones. Completely new connections may even be built that will form the permanent record of our oldest memories.


The hippocampus is a brain structure that is deeply involved in long-term memory, even though it appears to be only a temporary transit point for memories.

Nevertheless, the neurons of the hippocampus display remarkable plasticity. Some of them, when they receive a number of nerve impulses over a short period, will strengthen the synaptic connections through which these impulses were received. This increase in the efficiency of these synapses can last hours, days, or even weeks.

The term “long-term potentiation” is used to describe these molecular changes, which are probably the basis for much long-term learning.

The process that results in long-term potentiation is presented briefly in the following diagram. (Click on numbers 2, 3, and 4 to see the corresponding steps in this process.)

Both types of receptors are needed to allow the influx of calcium that will quickly result in the strengthening of this synapse after a series of chemical reactions.

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