Imprinting memories: an interview with Katja Kornysheva

Katja Kornysheva is a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London and the Department of Neuroscience, University Erasmus Medical Centre.

“I was drawn into neuroscience in a fairly unusual way,” said Postdoctoral Fellow, Katja Kornysheva. “It happened when I was studying musicology as an undergraduate. My professor gave us a lecture on the neurophysiology of sound processing and I was immediately hooked.”

Katja Kornysheva
Katja Kornysheva in the Lab. Image CCBY 3.0 Katja Kornysheva.

Kornysheva completed her degree in Musicology at the University of Cologne, Germany in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. “I was excited by the beauty of the structure and function of the nervous system and how it determines our perceptions, thoughts and movements.”

She transitioned into experimental neuroscience, completing a PhD in Biological Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research. “I had a kind of gradual progression. My research evolved from studying the perception of sounds and rhythms towards the processes in our brain that control learning and timing. So, I’ve moved away from music research to just motor neuroscience and motor learning research.”

Kornysheva is now a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London and the Department of Neuroscience, University Erasmus Medical Centre. Here, she focuses on how different brain regions and individual cells within the brain constitute a new motor memory – the type of memory that allows us to teach our muscles to repeat movements or techniques over and over. “At the moment I’m fascinated by the idea that the brain can form a memory of something as complex and precisely timed as a sequence of muscle activation,” she explained.

The process of motor learning itself is complex and, yet, it controls seemingly simple, everyday activities such as speech. In order to perform an utterance in speech we need to control the different muscles in our vocal apparatus at precise points in time. When we say a word there are many different ways in which we could start to produce the sound. We could, for example, use the right muscles but use them in the wrong order or with the wrong timing. It is our motor memory that tells our vocal muscles exactly how and when to move. Kornysheva’s interests lie in unravelling this process both across whole brain regions and at a cellular level: “a lot of the things behind the encoding of such a complex skill are simply not known, so there is a lot to do in our field.”

Nerve fibres in a brain
Nerve fibres in a healthy adult human brain. Image Credit: Zeynep M. Saygin, McGovern Institute, MIT, Wellcome Images CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One possibility lies with patients suffering from ataxia, a condition resulting from damage to the cerebellum caused during a stroke or by neural degeneration. In these patients the motor learning that controls the precise movement of the vocal apparatus is lost. This loss results in so called ‘scanning speech’, where words are broken into separate muscle activations without precisely coordinated movement and timing, inevitably making communication very difficult.

Kornysheva hopes that, in the next 10 years or so, it may be possible to develop much better ways to help people who have lost their motor skills regain these abilities. “In a way it might sound a little bit crazy – an idea that you might see in science fiction films, but it’s all about the ability to imprint certain motor memories into an existing neural network.” In other words, patients could regain the skills that they had lost by direct intervention with the cells responsible for motor memory, without having to go through the process of re-learning them.

By Jennifer Mitchell, Communications Assistant, eLife.

Katja Kornysheva CV

  • 2012 – Present: Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Neuroscience, Erasmus MC, Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • 2010 – 2011: Marie Curie Research Associate, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, UK
  • 2007 – 2011: PhD, Biological Pschology