Exciting news just in from scientists at Yale University: “researchers have found a key molecule that helps neurons maintain information in working memory, and this could lead to potential treatments for neurocognitive disorders.” Something which is very desperately needed.
So What Exactly is Working Memory?
The term “working memory,” is frequently interchanged with the expression “short-term memory,” although technologically speaking, the former relates more to the entire theoretical framework of processes and structures which are utilized for the temporary manipulation and storage of data, of which short-term memory is just one element. Indeed, working memory is the power to: “hold a thought in mind even through distraction.” Moreover, it is: “the foundation of abstract reasoning and a defining characteristic of the human brain. It is also impaired in disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The Shortcomings of Our Working Memory
While it must be said that working memory can be flexible and useful to us: “information held in working memory is easily lost through distraction or overload. There is also a substantial variation in working memory capacity between individuals. Those with poor capacities will therefore, struggle to meet the heavy working memory demands of many situations.”
The prefrontal cortex’s central executive region at the front of the brain, has been shown to play a central role in working memory and short-term memory. It works as both a temporary store for short-term memory, yet also “calls up” data from other regions within the brain. Interestingly:
“the central executive controls two neural loops, one for visual data, and one for language, which uses a certain area as a type of “inner voice” which repeats word sounds to keep them in mind,” literally!
Does Stress Play a Role?
“Two groups of individuals were tested on their attention and working memory performance, one group after a relaxed walk in a quiet park and the other group after navigating busy city streets. Those who had been walking the city streets scored far lower on the tests.” This should not come as a surprise, and is something to be mindful about in our own lives.
The medical journal Neuron, which has just published the Yale University study, notes the senior author, Min Wang’s, comments: “neurons in the prefrontal cortex excite each other to keep information “in mind.” These circuits act as a sort of mental sketch pad, allowing us to remember that caramelized onions are cooking in the frying pan while we search the next room for a pair of scissors.”
The Technical Side
This ground breaking research indicates that: “these prefrontal cortical circuits depend upon a neurotransmitter stimulating M1 receptors on the surface of neurons of the prefrontal cortex. Blocking these M1 receptors reduced the firing of neurons involved in working memory, while activating the M1 receptors helped restore neuronal firing. Because acetylcholine actions at M1 receptors are reduced in schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, the M1 receptor may serve as a potential therapeutic target.” So this new information sounds like very promising news, and hopefully, more research on the subject will follow as soon as possible.