Experiencing the Neural Symphony Underlying Memory through a Blend of Science and Art

Experiencing the Neural Symphony Underlying Memory through a Blend of Science and Art

Posted on by John Ngai, PhD, NIH BRAIN Initiative

Ever wonder how you’re able to remember life events that happened days, months, or even years ago? You have your hippocampus to thank. This essential area in the brain relies on intense and highly synchronized patterns of activity that aren’t found anywhere else in the brain. They’re called “sharp-wave ripples.”

These dynamic ripples have been likened to the brain version of an instant replay, appearing most commonly during rest after a notable experience. And, now, the top video winner in this year’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative’s annual Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest allows you to witness the “chatter” that those ripples set off in other neurons. The details of this chatter determine just how durable a particular memory is in ways neuroscientists are still working hard to understand.

Neuroscientist Saman Abbaspoor in the lab of Kari Hoffman at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, sets the stage in the winning video by showing an electrode or probe implanted in the brain that can reach the hippocampus. This device allows the Hoffman team to wirelessly record neural activity in different layers of the hippocampus as the animal either rests or moves freely about.

In the scenes that follow, neurons (blue, cyan, and yellow) flash on and off. The colors highlight the fact that this brain area and the neurons within it aren’t all the same. Various types of neurons are found in the brain area’s different layers, some of which spark the activity you see, while others dampen it.

Hoffman explains that the specific shapes of individual cells pictured are realistic but also symbolic. While they didn’t trace the individual branches of neurons in the brain in their studies, they relied on information from previous anatomical studies, overlaying their intricate forms with flashing bursts of activity that come straight from their recorded data.

Tyler Sloan, Quorumetrix Studio, Montreal, Quebec, then added yet another layer of artistry to the experience with what he refers to as sonification, or the use of music to convey information about the dynamic and coordinated bursts of activity in those cells. At five seconds in, you hear the subtle flutter of a sharp-wave ripple. With each burst of active neural chatter that follows, you hear the dramatic plink of piano keys.

Together, their winning video creates a unique sensory experience that helps to explain what goes on during memory formation and recall in a way that words alone can’t adequately describe. Through their ongoing studies, Hoffman reports that they’ll continue delving even deeper into understanding these intricate dynamics and their implications for learning and memory. Ultimately, they also want to explore how brain ripples, and the neural chatter they set off, might be enhanced to make memory formation and recall even stronger.


S Abbaspoor & KL Hoffman. State-dependent circuit dynamics of superficial and deep CA1 pyramidal cells in macaques. BioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2023.12.06.570369 (2023). Please note that this article is a pre-print and has not been peer-reviewed.

NIH Support: The NIH BRAIN Initiative

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