How the brain remembers right place, right time - 1


About a decade ago, a group of neurons known as "time cells" was discovered in rats. These cells appear to play a unique role in recording when events take place, allowing the brain to correctly mark the order of what happens in an episodic memory.

Located in the brain's hippocampus, these cells show a characteristic activity pattern while the animals are encoding and recalling events, explain Bradley Lega, M.D., associate professor of neurological surgery at UTSW and senior author of the PNAS study. By firing in a reproducible sequence, they allow the brain to organize when events happen, Lega says. The timing of their firing is controlled by 5 Hz brain waves, called theta oscillations, in a process known as precession.

Lega investigated whether humans also have time cells by using a memory task that makes strong demands on time-related information. Lega and his colleagues recruited volunteers from the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at UT Southwestern's Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, where epilepsy patients stay for several days before surgery to remove damaged parts of their brains that spark seizures. Electrodes implanted in these patients' brains help their surgeons precisely identify the seizure foci and also provide valuable information on the brain's inner workings, Lega says.

While recording electrical activity from the hippocampus in 27 volunteers' brains, the researchers had them do "free recall" tasks that involved reading a list of 12 words for 30 seconds, doing a short math problem to distract them from rehearsing the lists, and then recalling as many words from the list as possible for the next 30 seconds. This task requires associating each word with a segment of time (the list it was on), which allowed Lega and his team to look for time cells. What the team found was exciting: Not only did they identify a robust population of time cells, but the firing of these cells predicted how well individuals were able to link words together in time (a phenomenon called temporal clustering). Finally, these cells appear to exhibit phase precession in humans, as predicted.

"For years scientists have proposed that time cells are like the glue that holds together memories of events in our lives," according to Lega. "This finding specifically supports that idea in an elegant way."