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See Inside February 2005

Making Memories Stick

Some moments become lasting recollections while others just evaporate. The reason may involve the same processes that shape our brains to begin with
an electrophysiological recording apparatus



KAY CHERNUSH

In the movie thriller Memento, the principal character, Leonard, can remember everything that happened before his head injury on the night his wife was attacked, but anyone he meets or anything he has done since that fateful night simply vanishes. He has lost the ability to convert short-term memory into long-term memory. Leonard is driven to find his wife's killer and avenge her death, but trapped permanently in the present, he must resort to tattooing the clues of his investigation all over his body.

That disturbing story was inspired by the real case history of a patient known in the medical literature only as "HM." When HM was nine years old, a head injury in a bicycle accident left him with debilitating epilepsy. To relieve his seizures that could not be controlled in any other way, surgeons removed parts of HM's hippocampus and adjoining brain regions. The operation succeeded in reducing the brain seizures but inadvertently severed the mysterious link between short-term and long-term memory. Information destined for what is known as declarative memory--people, places, events--must pass through the hippocampus before being recorded in the cerebral cortex. Thus, memories from long ago that were already stored in HM's brain remained clear, but all his experiences of the present soon faded into nothing. HM saw his doctor on a monthly basis, but at each visit it was as if the two had never met.

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