LOS ANGELES - Whether drawn as a cartoon or disguised as Catwoman, the striking features of Halle Berry are readily recognized by movie fans. That recognition is achieved by a surprisingly small group of brain cells, an international team of researchers reports in today's edition of the journal Nature.
Most researchers had thought that specific memories were spread out over large groups of brain cells, or neurons. However, the new study showed that small clusters of cells responded to specific people or objects, such as Jennifer Aniston or the Sydney Opera House, regardless of changes in their appearance, and sometimes just by seeing the name of the objects.
The findings could provide insight into the still unknown mechanism by which new memories are stored and how those memories are recalled.
The researchers studied eight patients who had 100 tiny electrodes implanted in their brains before epilepsy surgery to identify the source of their seizures. Before surgery, however, researchers used the electrodes to test each individual's ability to recognize faces and objects.
The electrodes were implanted in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is important for forming and recalling memories. Nearby temporal lobe regions process signals from the eyes, combining basic colors and shades into recognizable objects. These regions are informally described as the "what" visual pathway because of their role in determining what we're seeing.
The electrodes recorded neuron activation while researchers showed the patients images of different things or people (such as Berry, Aniston or the opera house) or different images of the same thing or person (such as a drawing of Halle and a photo of her in a Catwoman costume.)
The neurons had clear favorites. A "Halle Berry" cell fired primarily for Berry pictures, a "Jennifer Aniston" cell primarily for Aniston. These neurons responded to different images of their favorite, even though the patterns of colors and shapes, hairstyles and wardrobes, changed considerably from picture to picture. Specific features were "ignored," while the general image was "recognized."