UC Irvine scientists discover pathway to brain's memory storage

IRVINE — UC Irvine researchers have developed a technique that enables them to see a pathway in the human brain to the area that stores memories, one of the project scientists said today.

Craig Stark, the principal investigator and interim director of the university's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, said researchers used new techniques that offer higher-resolution images from an MRI machine, enabling them to find the long-hidden section in the brain.

The discovery of the so-called Perforant Path could help speed up diagnoses of Alzheimer's disease, Stark said.

"We've long known this is one of the main connections between two portions of the brain responsible for episodic memory,'' Stark said. "The problem has been that while we can look at it in a rat after dissecting the brain, or in non-human primates, but to actually see it in humans, and, more importantly, in perfectly healthy humans in a non-invasive way is something we've never been able to do until now.''

The findings, which were published June 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will help scientists better understand how aging affects the brain's retrieval of memories.

"We know a lot about how rats change with age, but we know a lot less about how human brains change as they age,'' Stark said.

But monitoring the Perforant Path in the brains of volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 89 over the past year on the Irvine campus has confirmed for scientists that much of the research on rats is relevant, he said.

Just like with rats, the deterioration of the Perforant Path in the human brain affects how well one remembers, Stark said.

He said the discovery will be significant for Alzheimer's patients because the earlier it is diagnosed, the better physicians can treat those afflicted with the disease.

"If a drug company has a promising new drug they'll want to give it to people in the earliest stages,'' Stark said. "The earlier you start the better off you are.''

The other researchers on the project were former UC Irvine grad student and now post-doctoral fellow Michael Yassa, who was the first author on the academic paper, and MRI physicist Tugan Muftuler.