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They are moved in and out of the synapse constantly and turn over in hours or days. Yet some memories are still forgotten.

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Hardt proposed that AMPA receptors can also be removed, which suggests that forgetting is an active process. If that were true, then preventing the removal of AMPA receptors should prevent forgetting. When Hardt and his colleagues blocked the mechanism behind AMPA-receptor removal in the hippocampi of rats, as expected, they found that the rats were prevented from forgetting the locations of objects 2.

To forget certain things, it seemed that the rat brain had to proactively destroy connections at the synapse. The neurotransmitter dopamine is now known to play an essential part in memory. Paul Frankland, a neuroscientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, had also found evidence that the brain is wired to forget. Frankland was studying the production of new neurons, or neurogenesis, in adult mice.

The process had long been known to occur in the brains of young animals, but had been discovered in the hippocampi of mature animals only about 20 years earlier. Because the hippocampus is involved in memory formation, Frankland and his team wondered whether increasing neurogenesis in adult mice could help the rodents to remember. As contradictory as that initially seemed to Frankland, given the assumption that new neurons would mean more capacity for and potentially better memory, he says it now makes sense.

Because the hippocampus is not where long-term memories are stored in the brain, its dynamic nature is not a flaw but a feature, Frankland says — something that evolved to aid learning.

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The environment is changing constantly and, to survive, animals must adapt to new situations. Allowing fresh information to overwrite the old helps them to achieve that. Researchers think that the human brain might operate in a similar way. Studies of people with exceptional autobiographical memories or with impaired ones seem to bear this out. People with a condition known as highly superior autobiographical memory HSAM remember their lives in such incredible detail that they can describe the outfit that they were wearing on any particular day.

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Those with severely deficient autobiographical memory SDAM , however, are unable to vividly recall specific events in their lives. As a result, they also have trouble imagining what might happen in the future. The integration of new neurons green into the hippocampus red bands degrades stored memories. Credit: Jagroop Dhaliwal. Various symptoms of these conditions — including flashbacks, obsessive thoughts, depressive rumination and difficulty controlling thoughts — have been linked to an overactive hippocampus.

A better understanding of how to help people make traumatic memories less intrusive could help researchers to treat some of the most intractable cases. When Anderson and his colleagues looked at what happens when volunteers suppress unwanted memories — a process he calls motivated forgetting — they found that people who reported more traumatic experiences were particularly good at repressing specific memories 5.

Understanding the cognitive psychology that underlies that ability, as well as the mental resilience that is necessary for developing it, could help to improve treatment for PTSD. If forgetting is truly a well-regulated, innate part of the memory process, he says, it makes sense that dysregulation of that process could have negative effects.

That question is yet to be answered. But more memory researchers are shifting their focus to examine how the brain forgets, as well as how it remembers.

How Human Memory Works

In the past decade, researchers have begun to view forgetting as an important part of a whole. Memory, first and foremost, is there to serve an adaptive purpose. It endows us with knowledge about the world, and then updates that knowledge. This article is part of Nature Outlook: The brain , an editorially independent supplement produced with the financial support of third parties.

About this content. Berry, J. Neuron 74 , — Migues, P. Akers, K. Science , — Schmitz, T. Nature Commun. Hulbert, J. Download references. An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday. Advanced search.

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Follow your doctor's treatment recommendations for medical conditions, such as depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and hearing loss. The better you take care of yourself, the better your memory is likely to be. In addition, review your medications with your doctor regularly.

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Various medications can affect memory. If you're worried about memory loss — especially if memory loss affects your ability to complete your usual daily activities or if you notice your memory getting worse — talk to your doctor. He or she will likely do a physical exam, as well as check your memory and problem-solving skills. Sometimes other tests are needed as well.

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Healthy Lifestyle Healthy aging. Products and services. Free E-newsletter Subscribe to Housecall Our general interest e-newsletter keeps you up to date on a wide variety of health topics. Sign up now. Memory loss: 7 tips to improve your memory Try these simple ways to improve your memory. By Mayo Clinic Staff.