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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 August 2006, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
New experiences 'improve memory'
MRI scan of brain (UCL)
The red areas show the novelty-activation in the brain
Being exposed to new experiences can boost memory, research suggests.

UK scientists believe introducing new facts when learning, rather than repeatedly processing information, improves memory performance.

They have discovered that a region of the brain associated with a chemical important for the long-term memory is activated by novelty.

The team says their findings, published in the journal Neuron, may potentially help the treatment of memory problems.

Revising is more effective if you mix new facts in with the old
Dr Duzel, UCL

Scientists from University College London (UCL) scanned volunteers' brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while showing them both new images and images they had already seen.

They discovered the novel images activated a region of the brain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental, while the familiar images did not.

This region of the brain is associated with motivation and reward-orientated behaviours. It is also responsible for regulating a chemical called dopamine, a neurotransmitter that aids memory formation in the brain.

Lead researcher Dr Emrah Duzel, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, said: "We wanted to find out why our brain is so affected by new experiences and new information.

"We thought novelty might be an incentive - something that has reward properties.

"We found that a brain area that we know codes for reward was also responsive to novelty."

New learning methods

The team believes this means humans could be attracted to new information - and that this brain activation could in turn have an impact on dopamine levels, and therefore memory.

They say these findings may have an impact on the treatment of memory problems.

Dr Duzel said: "Current practice by behavioural psychologists aims to improve memory through repeatedly exposing a person to information - just as we do when we revise for an exam.

"This study shows that revising is more effective if you mix new facts in with the old.

"You actually learn better, even though your brain is also tied up with new information."

Professor Keith Kendrick, head of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience at the Babraham Institute, UK, said: "It is a lovely idea, in principle, that perhaps you could use this to help people with learning difficulties to recall information by introducing new information into the tasks you are doing.

"But this work still has to be proven."

He added: "The other aspect of this study is that we have evolved to find novelty exciting. All species are attracted - and repelled - by novelty. If you do not explore you don't progress."

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