Science

Can we improve memory?

We all think that it would be good to improve the capacity or
persistence of our memory. Older people often complain
about their memory. However, improving memory would
almost certainly come at a price. This is because a good
memory is a balance between remembering and forgetting.
If we were we to improve it, we might then have difficulty
forgetting all the trivial things that happened during the day
that there is no need to remember. The ‘yin and yang’ of a
good memory is one that remembers and organises the right
things in the brain but forgets things that seem less
important. It seems unlikely that we shall ever have a pill
that will act like a magic bullet to improve memory, at least in
normal people. Evolution has ensured that the system is
optimally balanced.
Having said that, really serious forgetfulness might be
alleviated by drugs that make NMDA or AMPA receptors
work better, or drugs to stimulate the cascade of second￾messenger signals that studies of learning in young animals
have identified. It would be helpful also to find some way of
stemming the course of neurodegenerative diseases such as
Alzheimer’s Disease that affect memory early on. One of the
exciting adventures in neuroscience today, for scientists in
universities, research institutes and pharmaceutical
companies, is working on projects of this kind. With the
population demography of virtually all developed countries
veering towards a greater preponderance of older people,
treatments that could help them lead independent lives for
longer would be greatly valued.
However, some scientists believe that cognitive engineering
will be needed alongside drugs. You do not hear so much
about cognitive engineering in the newspapers as about new

Research Frontiers

Can We Improve our Memory
London taxi drivers have to know the city very well before
they are allowed to ply the city for fares. When researchers
put experienced taxi drivers in a brain scanner and asked
them to imagine a trip from Marble Arch to Elephant and
Castle, they saw greater activation in the right
parahippocampal cortex (red areas). Structural MRI scans
of taxi drivers show changes in the relative size of different
parts of their hippo-campus that may be related to how
much of the city they are able to remember – although there
could be other factors as well.
drugs, but it is no less important. The idea is to take
advantage of what has been learned about how information
is encoded, stored, consolidated (the ‘fixing’ process) and
then retrieved. Paying attention, spacing out learning
sessions, and getting frequent reminders to help the ‘fixing’
process are all examples. Some elderly patients with
memory problems are finding a paging system called
“NeuroPage” quite helpful – it reminds them of what they
should be doing next and so helps them structure their day
in a manner that they might otherwise forget to do.
Recognising the different operating principles of episodic
memory and skill learning is also essential – you will never
learn a skill by merely hearing about it, although this works
fine for episodic memory. Anyone trying to learn a skill must
practice often, as the pupils of any music teacher are
always reminded.

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