Brain Development and Long-Term Memory

Mary Anne Holmes, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

The aspect of learning that most interests me is long-term declarative memory formation. Three aspects of brain development influence memory formation for college-age students: 1) the phenomenal growth of neurons and connections made among them that occur from adolescence to early adulthood and the subsequent pruning of neuronal connections ("use it or lose it"), 2) the impact of this growth on how declarative memory can be created and stored for the long term (hippocampus activation), and 3) the somewhat competing phenomenon of the lag in development until early adulthood of the part of the brain that governs impulse inhibition, prioritization, and strategizing (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).

Memories are more readily formed and retained when created during this life phase than in later years. Stressors enhance neuronal connections: fear stimuli enhance neuronal connections in the amygdala, the seat of fear, aggression and emotional responses. Repetition and mnemonic devices act as stressors on the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory. We have the opportunity to help students learn to create and retain memories and to develop some late-developing parts of the brain that govern spatial awareness and understanding. Maps are an excellent tool to help the brain develop spatial awareness.

Getting students to focus on these tasks and to see their importance can be challenging because of the late development of the parts of the brain that reduce risk-taking, control impulses and weigh consequences. For activation of the hippocampus (movement of short-term to long-term memory storage), students need to devote time to a task (and repeat the task), have sufficient sleep, eliminate distractions (yes, ipods, twittering, im, texting, etc.), and avoid alcohol. Some research indicates that an additional stimulus while studying, such as white noise or a consistent scent, can help memory consolidation.


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Giedd, J.N., 2004. Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Adolescent Brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1021, pp. 77 – 85.