Montana State University researchers studying memory have received a $300,000 grant to continue their work and published their recent discoveries in the widely read journal "Science."
Charles Gray, professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, is one of four American scientists to receive a prestigious grant from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience.
Gray was awarded a $300,000 Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award, which will give him $100,000 a year from 2013 to 2015. The other awards went to researchers at Stanford, Columbia and Carnegie Mellon universities.
“It was a good week,” Gray said.
For the paper, published Nov. 23 in "Science," Gray headed a five-year project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The project studied how visual objects were held in short-term memory. It focused on two key regions inside the brain's cerebral cortex: the prefrontal and parietal areas, which are critical to cognition, attention and short-term memory.
Scientists discovered that signals in both those regions synchronized with one another when objects were held in short-term memory.
“The discovery demonstrates that the two regions closely coordinate their activities in a manner that depends on what is being held in memory,” Gray said.
This process occurs even when the cortical regions are widely separated from each other and their connections are relatively weak, he added. Each region contains billions of nerve cells, but the number of nerves connecting them is relatively tiny.
“The Holy Grail of neuroscience has been to understand how and where information is encoded in the brain, said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel. "This study provided more evidence that large-scale electrical oscillations across distant brain regions may carry information for visual memories.”
Gray said the communication between those parts of the brain isn't fully understood, but the new study provides insights into the details of the process.
“The brain is extraordinarily complex, and the signals that move between regions are very sophisticated,” Gray said.
The cerebral cortex has about 100 regions, Gray said. Regions can act alone or coordinate with other regions. Together, they are responsible for nearly all cognitive and mental functions -- including perception, movement, attention, reasoning and memory.
Understanding how regions of the cortex communicate could help scientists treat people who have conditions believed to disrupt communication within the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, depression and schizophrenia.
Gray, who has worked with teams in California to measure brain activity in Parkinson’s disease patients, co-authored the paper in “Science.” He worked with lead author Rodrigo Salazar and Nick Dotson, both in MSU’s Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, and Steve Bressler, a neuroscientist at Florida Atlantic University.
The Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards support research by U.S. scientists who are exploring new ways to diagnose, prevent and treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
During the three years of his McKnight Award, Gray plans to measure neural activity from large areas of the brain to obtain a broad perspective on how and where information is encoded when something is held in short-term memory.
“Understanding just how the brain creates and retrieves memories, and how brain systems can go awry, is the foundation for development of therapies for human brain diseases,” said Eric Nestler, chairman of the McKnight awards committee. “These research efforts seek to advance understanding of the brain and bring new insights to bear on this important quest.”