The famous patient Henry Molaison (long known as H.M.) suffered damage to his hippocampus after a surgical attempt to cure his epilepsy. As a result, he had anterograde amnesia, which meant that things he learned never made it past his short-term memory. Though his memories of childhood remained intact, H.M. might meet with his doctor and five minutes later say: “Oh, I don’t think I’ve ever met you. What’s your name?”.
H.M. helped scientists understand the role of the hippocampus in learning, but a mystery remains around how signals from this brain region somehow get shared with the billions of neurons throughout the cortex that change in a coordinated fashion when we learn. In a paper published today in the prestigious journal Science, a collaboration between the University of Ottawa and Humbolt University of Berlin reveals a critical role for a brain area called the perirhinal cortex in managing this learning process.
The study involved mice and rats learning a rather strange brain-based skill. A small number of neurons in the sensory cortex were stimulated, and the rodent had to show it had felt the buzz by licking a dispenser to receive some sweetened water. No one can say for sure what that brain stimulation feels like for the animal, but the team’s best guess is that it mimics the feeling of something touching its whiskers.
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