On April 15, 22 and 29, Dr. Sathya Puthanveettil of The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter will lead a series titled Our Brain and Memory at the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach. This free lecture is broken into three parts, with the first (April 15) chronicling the evolution of the brain, the second (April 22) dissecting how memories are stored in different parts of the brain and the third (April 29) looking at neuropsychiatric diseases, including addiction. PBI.com chatted with Dr. Puthanveettil about his research and what to expect at the lectures.
PBI.com: How long have you been studying the human brain, and memory in particular?
Dr. Puthanveettil: I’ve been studying memory for almost 15 years. I actually study memory using simple organisms such as snails and mice, and that has a lot of relevance for human memory. The reason why people use simple organisms is because many of these processes are fundamentally conserved; so many things that happen, for example, in snails also happen in mice and also happen in humans. At the end of the day, memory corresponds to strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons; there’s both strengthening and weakening of a specific part of the circuitry using molding, learning and memory storage.
Why did you decide to focus on memory in your research?
Memory is who we are, right? That is what makes us who we are. On a personal level, one of my grandmas, she passed away at 94, but she remembered everything so intact. But my other grandma, she had very bad dementia for almost eight years before she passed away. In my own family, you can see: This is a very, very sad situation. You can hardly even remember your own daughter, your grandchild, whether you eat or not. On a scientific level, it’s one of the most fascinating problems you can ever think of, how things can be stored so that you can [call upon] these things at will. There are ways you can strengthen this, but some other things actually weaken it. I am a molecular biologist and a biochemist, so I understand the molecules and how they function, and when you know how molecules work, you can develop better drugs.
What will you highlight in part one of your lecture?
I’m going to talk about how the brain has evolved. So, what is the origin of the brain? What is the origin of neurons? I’ll talk about the neurons from different organisms such as snails, mammals and fish. I cover all these different animals to show how our brain is unique compared to, for example, chimpanzees, and to show what makes us smarter than all the other animals.
What about part two?
In part two, I talk about how memories are actually stored in different parts of the brain. I generally do some demonstrations using the postmortem human brain—it will be a very close experience. Then I talk about parts of our brain and what part actually controls what specific function. For example, where the memories are stored, what areas of the brain are involved in it and what part of the brain helps you to hear, what part of the brain helps you to see, what’s the site of intelligence, what’s the site of fear.
And what about part three?
I talk about the different neuropsychiatric diseases including addiction. So, what happens to our brain, for example, when we get Alzheimer’s, when we get Parkinson’s. What happens to our brain when we get schizophrenia or autism. And also, how drugs of abuse are going to change our brain; what part of the brain is affected, for example, when you smoke marijuana or something like that. And I also talk about how some people become a lot smarter than others. Or, why some people might become serial killers or rapists and all those things—what goes on in their brains?
How do you go about making scientific discoveries and data accessible to the average listener?
I have cartoons, I have videos. And these are very simple concepts. Even though the subject is very complicated, the take-home message is simple. I can talk about all the molecular things we know about memory, but the important thing about memory is that there are changes happening in our brain in specific neurons. So, I try to simplify this but at the same time it is not like you don’t know anything about it. Scientists like us, we do indeed [focus] on the details, but we also look at the what are the big changes happening? For a common person, it’s necessary to appreciate the importance of the brain because this is what makes us who we are. So it’s important to know how the brain works, at least in simple terms.
What’s the relationship between intelligence and memory formation?
Intelligence and memory formation are directly linked, but there are different kinds of memories. Some people can actually remember certain events or certain numbers. Some people are very good in storing numbers and doing something with math. But on the other hand, some people are very good at painting and some people are very good at analyzing. So the exact storage and the exact mechanisms of how things happen in a normal human being are not well understood, but the general idea is that there are better connections, there are stronger connections between brain regions. So, if a person is a very good musician, for example Elton John, he might have a slightly different brain wiring compared to us; the part of the brain that controls the music, some of that circuitry might be a lot stronger than in our brains.
What exterior elements can affect long-term memory formation?
Every element has a huge, huge influence on how much we can remember. Of course, your health, your exercise and other physical elements have an effect. Exercise and the kind of food we eat have a lot of impact on our brain.