Exceptional memory linked to bulked-up parts of brain

People who can recall life’s events in detail have enlarged region linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder

WASHINGTON — Like the fictional detective Carrie Wells on the TV show Unforgettable, some real-life people can remember every day of their lives in detail. Those superrememberers have more bulk in certain parts of their brains, possibly explaining the remarkable ability to recall minutiae from decades ago, researchers said November 13 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

One brain region involved in such incredible recall has been implicated in obsessive-compulsive disorder, hinting that OCD and superior memory might have a common architecture in the brain.

Scientists have long studied people with memory deficits, but there haven’t been many studies on people with exceptional memories. “Looking at memory from a deficit gave us a lot of insight into memory,” said study coauthor Aurora LePort of the University of California, Irvine. “Looking at memory from a superior perspective gives us a new tool. It may just broaden our knowledge and ability to know what’s going on.”

In 2006, UC Irvine neuroscientist Larry Cahill and collaborators published a report on a woman who could remember detailed accounts of her life. Cahill and colleagues then began hearing from many people who claimed to have extraordinary memories. After sifting through and eliminating the impostors, the team was left with 11 people who scored off the charts for autobiographical memory. These people could effortlessly remember, for instance, what they were doing on November 2, 1989, and could also tell you that it was a Thursday. “They’re not going home and saying ‘OK, let me write down what I did today and memorize it,’ ” LePort said.

Using brain scans, researchers found that people with supermemories had larger brain regions associated with memory, including the left temporoparietal junction and the left posterior insula. What’s more, a brain structure called the lentiform nucleus, a cone-shaped mass in the core of the brain, was bigger in people with exceptional memories. This brain area has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

The subjects haven’t been clinically evaluated for OCD, but LePort says that there are some similarities. “The ability to organize their memories by dates seems to relieve anxiety,” she says.

Researchers don’t know how the brain accomplishes this feat. These people could encode information more effectively, or have a better system of retrieving it, or both. “Right now, we can see the brain areas that are coming out and speculate about what’s going on,” LePort says.

The team hopes to do further studies examining what’s happening in the brain as these people remember.

One tantalizing lead suggests that genetics might be involved. Though no genetic tests have been performed, some of the volunteers have reported that family members share extraordinary powers of recall, LePort says.

The result “certainly pushes us beyond the boundaries of what we might normally think,” said memory expert Howard Eichenbaum of Boston University. “It violates a standard principle that most of us have, which is that normal memory is pretty damn optimized.”

The volunteers are now keeping detailed diaries, so that the scientists can test whether particular kinds of memories are better suited to recollection. People might be better at remembering emotional memories, for instance.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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