At the well attended Language and Memory seminar on July 13 at the Italian Cultural Institute, hosted by the New York chapter of Italian Scientists and Scholars North America Foundation (ISSNAF), Wendy Suzuki (Professor of Neural Science and Psychology, NYU) invited us to charge our neurotransmitters with exercise to improve mood, memory and attention; and Cristina Alberini (Professor of Neural Science, NYU) asked us to think back to those memories etched in our brains and understand the biological mechanisms of long-term memory.
“The human brain is the most complex structure known to mankind – Wendy Suzuki reminds us – It’s the structure that allowed us to build the pyramids, to create the iPad, and to put people on the moon.”
Suzuki, with human brain in hand (inspired by her first class with Marion C. Diamond, a rock star in the field of neuroanatomy), moved easily across the room, making the human brain accessible to us, identifying and explaining the cortex, frontal and temporal lobes, the hippocampus, and more, as we, excited onlookers, ooh and ahh. In recounting her journey to her own lab at NYU in 1998, Suzuki summarized some pivotal research that directed her own scholarship in brain plasticity and the formation and retention of long-term memories, then shared a personal experience which she applied to learning in the classroom. “After discovering IntenSati (a combination of physical movements of kickboxing, martial arts, dance and yoga with positive spoken affirmations), I was full of energy, in a great mood – explains Suzuki – it became easier to write my scientific grants. I seemed to be to focus my attention better while writing and make more and better associations between the 20 journal articles that I needed to summarize. I realized I had just done an experiment on myself and the results were these striking brain changes.”
From this experience, she developed and now teaches an undergraduate course, Can Exercise Change Your Brain, in which she brings the gym to the classroom so her students through physical activity and interaction experience first-hand all the neurophysiological, anatomical, and neurochemical effects that exercise has on the brain. The focus of these investigations is the effects of exercise on the brain, to be able to determine an exercise prescription that optimizes attention, mood and long-term memory. What have the findings shown so far? “What we know right now that is going to improve your brain function – Suzuki affirms – is that aerobic exercise has the most evidence behind it. Three times a week of aerobic exercise increases your heart rate and all of the neurochemicals are changing, are increasing in your brain, and if you do that enough, for a longer period of time, the idea is that that will change the feedback, and result in long-term changes in the brain.” The implications for how the effects of exercise on the brain affect society are exciting. “The hippocampus, as well as the prefrontal cortex, are most affected and exercise is strengthening those key structures, so the longer you strengthen them, the longer your brain will be in good working condition – she concluded – This is a relevant for everybody, and has implications for how we live, work and educate our children.”
“The biology of the brain is in its prehistory. – Cristina Alberini advises – We started 25 years ago, and we didn’t know if the brain used different types of mechanisms compared to the other tissues.” The biological mechanisms of long-term memory is a relatively young science, and Alberini has made major contributions to this field, including the discovery the biological changes that manifest when events become long-term memories. “We have long-term memories from scary events that can last a lifetime. Why is that? – Alberini says – Basic biology. We need to remember how to preserve ourselves.” How then does the brain remember for different years one single event? “During a stressful event – she explains – the stress hormones are regulating metabolic changes in the brain which, together with plastic changes that occur in the cells of the brain, are in part interacting in response to the stress, creating long-term memories.”
Memory is what we learn is important enough to be stored. When we learn something new, the memory is in a fragile state, for quite some time. If the event is important, the long-term memory comes up, slowly, and takes awhile to consolidate that event in our brain, so that it can be stored longer. “Genes and sequences in this pathway are important to form long-term memory – Alberini states – One of the mechanisms we have identified searching in this biology is called “insulin-growth factor 2”, a peptide, relatively small, similar to insulin, but with a very different function, which is produced by the brain when we make long term memories. When you supply IGF2 with learning, the long term memories become longer and stronger, as it speeds up the restructuring of the brain that occurs naturally through learning. When you disrupt its presence, you disrupt long term learning.”
Memories cannot be erased but they can be impaired or decreased significantly, thus they are very fragile in the long-term too. “If you go back to your family and recall a memory from years ago, everyone gives a different version of the event – Alberini affirms – We keep the memories but time changes them. We learn something new, make new associations, new memories and now we connect these memories. We put them together when we retrieve them and we restore them, so memories are very dynamic.” Alberini’s work on memory formation, storage, retrieval and reconsolidation aims at improving the quality of life and could unlock new secrets to learning and education.
Learning and memory are interconnected processes controlled by the coordinated activity of molecules, synapses, cells and neural networks within the brain. Did you know that in general 25% of an adult’s body energy is used by the brain yet its weight is only 2%? Thankfully, after informative and engaging talks by Drs. Alberini and Suzuki, we’re able to restore some of this energy with a delicious reception sponsored by Il Riccio.
At this point, we chat with Riccardo Lattanzi, Co-Chair of ISSNAF’s NY Chapter and professor of Radiology at NYU. ISSNAF was established in 2008 and founded by three Nobel Prize winners to promote contact and exchange of knowledge between Italian scientists, scholars and entrepreneurs in Italy and North America. “ISSNAF has approximately 4,700 affiliates and regional chapters, the first of which was established here in NY, which I founded in 2010. – states Lattanzi – The purpose of these talks is to bring together members locally for seminars and social events that highlight different areas of expertise. In March, our seminar ‘Anti-Aging Medicine’ focused on skin, bones, heart, brain and digestive system and provided many useful health tips. Today’s talk on the brain is the first talk with such a strong scientific base, and both speakers were excellent in their presentations. We also have aperitivi with other Italian associations, for example the bar and business associations, providing networking opportunities.”
ISSNAF hosts an annual event in Washington in October, which celebrates researchers and scholars of Italian origin or nationality who are active in North America. This year’s theme, Innovation Through Science, will also include a presentation on the international hub of Human Technopole project.
Why become an ISSNAF affiliate? “First, to meet other Italians to network for the purpose of developing joint scientific collaborations, project ideas, but also networking to create new synergies and relationships beyond the scientific and academic communities. – Lattanzi highlights – You can also participate in the community via newsletters and emails to learn about opportunities for fellowships and exchanges for students, scientists and scholars between Italy and the U.S. And it’s free to join.” Lattanzi encourages affiliates also to volunteer and/or give to the foundation, as he has: “It is a way to give back to the country that provided these opportunities to me (having completed a masters at MIT and doctorate at Harvard-MIT) and to help future students too.”