MIT Scientists Led by Nobelist Susumu Tonegawa Identify Hippocampus Neurons Devoted to Social Memory; “One of the Most Fascinating Papers Related to Social Neuroscience I’ve Ever Seen,” Says Independent Expert

Mice have brain cells that are dedicated to storing memories of other mice, according to a new study from MIT neuroscientists. These cells, found in a region of the hippocampus known as the ventral CA1, store “social memories” that help shape the mice’s behavior toward each other. The researchers also showed that they can suppress or stimulate these memories by using a technique known as optogenetics to manipulate the cells that carry these memory traces, or engrams. “You can change the perception and the behavior of the test mouse by either inhibiting or activating the ventral CA1 cells,” says Nobelist Susumu Tonegawa, Ph.D., the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, and Director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Dr. Tonegawa is the senior author of the study, which appears in the September 30, 2016 issue of Science. The article is titled “Ventral CA1 Neurons Store Social Memory.” MIT postdoc Teruhiro Okuyama is the paper’s lead author. In a well-known study published in 2005, researchers at Caltech identified neurons in the human brain that respond specifically to images of celebrities such as Halle Berry or Brad Pitt, leading the scientists to conclude that the brain has cells devoted to storing memories of people who are familiar. Many of these cells were found in and around the hippocampus, which is also where the brain stores memories of events, known as episodic memories. The MIT team suspected that in mice, social memories might be stored in the hippocampus’ ventral CA1, in part because previous studies have suggested that this region is not involved in storing episodic memories.
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