Aged people often seem to maintain strong memories of childhood places, but sometimes have difficulties making new memories of new places. My great-grandmother, for example, would tell stories of her childhood, bringing us all vividly back to explorations of her favorite red-brick house, but after the story, she would wonder how we got to the living room of the nursing home.
Indeed, normal aging is associated with diminished memory capacity in both humans and animals (Gallagher and Rapp, 1997). How can we study why the aging brain has trouble making memories? This chapter will address how we can gain insight into the mechanisms underlying age-associated memory impairment. Memories are believed to be formed by strengthening some connections between neurons, while weakening others. Accordingly, encoding a memory involves binding a network of neurons together so that later the same neuronal network will be recalled into activity. The chapter will focus on one technique: recording electrophysiological signals from single cells in rats that are freely behaving. By recording action potentials of single neurons, researchers can ask how networks of neurons store information in their patterns of activity. Although this technique is far from explaining all questions of the aging brain, it does provide powerful insight into its information processing capabilities, especially when considered alongside well-documented neurobiological changes to the aging brain.
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