Learning and memory are vital attributes of human intelligence. These processes underlie the very nature of our self-awareness. They permeate all aspects of our interactions with each other and with the physical world in which we live. The quest to understand the anatomical, biophysical, and molecular processes underlying learning and memory is one of the greatest challenges in neurobiology. The questions to be answered in this endeavor are as broad as they are complex. What parts of the nervous system are critical for learning? How is information about a learned event acquired and encoded in neurons? How is the information stored, then how is it retrieved?
As the result of an enormous collective effort over the past 30 years, the following answers to some of these questions are beginning to emerge:
Dozens of scientists at UT-Houston are involved in research programs that examine learning and memory from a broad perspective, ranging from complex behavioral changes to the fundamental molecular mechanisms. Some members in the group examine regions of the brain engaged in and modified by learning. Once an area is identified, scientific techniques are used to identify the reasons why learning causes changes in the brain. Other studies examine memory deficits associated with trauma and Alzheimer’s disease. The ultimate objective is to obtain sufficient knowledge to provide disease therapies. More than four million Americans are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and the cost of caring for these individuals is at least $100 billion per year.
Beyond the obvious implications for health, research on learning and memory may have important commercial benefits. Artificial neural networks, or “thinking” computers, are increasingly being used in industry to perform routine tasks. Understanding the way the brain makes decisions will help scientists improve “intelligent” computer programs, using the brain as a model. The quality of UT-Houston’s programs in learning and memory was recently recognized by a major gift to establish the W. M. Keck Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.