As I recall…

Interactions between theta and gamma brain waves help us to conjure up vivid personal memories.

Waves of electrical activity coordinate different brain regions when we remember events from our past. Image credit: Hebscher et al. (CC BY 4.0)

When you recall an event from your past, such as a meal you ate last week, many regions of your brain become active. The coordinated activity of these regions enables you to recall the event in detail. This coordination depends on rhythmic waves of electrical activity called neural oscillations. These arise whenever large numbers of neurons synchronize when they fire. Electrodes on the scalp can be used to measure neural oscillations. Recordings show that the number of times each wave repeats per second (also known as the frequency of the oscillation), varies from one brain region to the next.

Two types of oscillations are particularly important for memory: theta waves and gamma waves. Theta waves repeat between three and seven times every second, and help coordinate activity between areas of the brain that are far apart. Gamma waves are faster, repeating 65 to 85 times per second, and help to support activity within individual regions of the brain. Importantly, theta and gamma waves also interact.

Hebscher et al. set out to understand whether interactions between theta and gamma waves help us to recall personal memories. Healthy volunteers were asked to recall memories in response to cues such as ‘my kitchen’, while sitting inside a brain scanner. As predicted, interactions between theta and gamma waves contributed to memory recall. Theta waves recorded from the medial temporal lobe, a region deep within the brain, altered gamma waves in another area called the precuneus. The latter forms part of the inner surface of the brain where the two hemispheres face one another, and is important for memory vividness and visual imagery. Hebscher et al. briefly disrupted the activity of the precuneus by applying harmless magnetic fields to the scalp above it. Doing so altered theta-gamma interactions across the brain, which was related to reduced vividness of the memories.

Remembering events from our past is fundamental to our sense of self and our interactions with others. The results presented by Hebscher et al. show that reducing the activity of a single brain region, the precuneus, impairs memory recall. It does so by disrupting interactions between oscillations throughout the brain. This raises the possibility that stimulating the brain to enhance – rather than disrupt – oscillations could have the opposite effect and improve memory. Future studies could investigate whether enhancing oscillations could help to treat memory disorders.