How fragile memories help us learn new stuff

Updating visual perceptual skills—which humans rely on to recognize what we see (including potential threats) and ignore unimportant background—is an active process with many similarities to the way we stabilize memories, according to a new study.

In the study, which appears in Nature Human Behavior, researchers tested whether memory reconsolidation, observed in animals, occurs in humans and whether it affects skill learning.

In animals, when a new memory forms, that memory is fragile until time passes and the memory consolidates. When memories are recalled or reactivated, they become temporarily unstable and vulnerable to change until they become stable again, shortly afterward.

Using behavioral techniques and new brain imaging tools, the study provides evidence that memory reconsolidation takes place in humans and that it underlies an important skill—visual perceptual learning.

“We performed this study because it is controversial whether reactivation makes already consolidated memory fragile again and whether this occurs in humans,” says Yuka Sasaki, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological science at Brown University. “If such reactivation and reconsolidation are true functions of the brain, they should also occur in human vision.”

Stripes and dots

Sasaki and her colleagues trained study participants to recognize a blurred-stripe image, called a Gabor stimulus, as distinct from random dots. The next day, researchers briefly tested subjects to recall the skill they learned.

Researchers then trained the participants to find a new Gabor stimulus whose position was the same as the original one but whose orientation was different, either immediately afterwards or 3.5 hours later. On the third day, researchers asked subjects to practice finding the original Gabor stimulus.

They found that the subjects who learned the altered Gabor stimulus immediately after looking at the original Gabor stimulus had significant trouble finding the original blurred stripe, suggesting that the reactivated memory was vulnerable to interference from new learning.

But the subjects who had an interval of 3.5 hours between practicing the original test and the altered Gabor stimuli performed much better. This suggests that the subjects who had more time for their memories to reconsolidate were better able to cement their visual perceptual learning.

These results reveal two important findings, the researchers says: Visual perceptual learning can undergo reconsolidation. And the reconsolidation window closes sometime before 3.5 hours after the initial recall. The results also suggest that consolidation and reconsolidation have similar influences on behavior.

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