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We know how artificial intelligence “remembers,” utilizing data encoding techniques to translate information into a complex pattern of 1s and 0s. But human memory storage continues to pose many fascinating mysteries. Researchers like Jason Shepherd are tackling these neuroscience puzzles on a molecular level. His lab investigates how our neural network is able to store information and retain a lifetime of memories despite the short life of proteins within cells.

Listen and learn

  • What the mechanisms and basic maps are for short-term to long-term memory conversion,
  • How his lab is researching a specific gene utilized in this encoding and modulation between cells called ARC, which they believe evolved from an ancient viral infection, and
  • Why a better understanding of the Arc capsid function holds a key to the entire process.

Jason Shepherd is an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy and an adjunct associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He works at the molecular level to understand how the cells in our brain are able to store information and experiences over a lifetime.

He reminds listeners that when we learn, there’s a specific set of cells that are active and encoding that experience. What is data encoding for the brain? Well, there’s a consolidation period when those active neurons become connected to each other through synaptic connections. Scientists call this synaptic plasticity, when the connections between cells that’ve retained the experience are wired together. That specific circuit is activated when we recall the memory and they think that plasticity process stores the memory.

That’s where the master regulator gene called Arc comes in. If the gene is removed from mice, they cannot remember anything for long periods of time. The short to long-term memory conversion requires this gene, and based on its appearance, they think it evolved from an ancient viral element that infected an ancestor. It’s retained a lot of the viral biology, such as utilizing a capsid.

Because scientists have learned so much about retroviruses like HIV, Shepherd and his team are able to use that knowledge in how they approach Arc research. The gene enables signaling from one cell to another through this capsid, which viruses usually use to transfer their own genetic material. He’s taking a focused look at what exactly the capsid enables.

For more, see his lab’s website at and find him on Twitter as @JasonSynaptic.

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