Even though you are not aware of it, your eyes play a role in searing an image into your brain, long after you have stopped looking at it.
Through brain imaging, Baycrest scientists have found evidence that the brain uses eye movements to help people recall vivid moments from the past, paving the way for the development of visual tests that could alert doctors earlier about those at risk for neurodegenerative illnesses.
The study, recently published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, found that when people create a detailed mental image in their head, not only do their eyes move in the same way as when they first saw the picture, their brains showed a similar pattern of activity.
"There's a theory that when you remember something, it's like the brain is putting together a puzzle and reconstructing the experience of that moment from separate parts," says Dr. Bradley Buchsbaum, senior author on the study, scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and psychology professor at the University of Toronto. "The pattern of eye movements is like the blueprint that the brain uses to piece different parts of the memory together so that we experience it as a whole."
This is the first time a direct connection has been established between a person's eye movements and patterns of brain activity, which follows up on previous studies linking what we see to how we remember.
In the study, researchers used a mathematical algorithm to analyze the brain scans and eye movements of 16 young adults between the ages of 20 to 28. Individuals were shown a set of 14 distinct images for a few seconds each. They were asked to remember as many details of the picture as possible so they could visualize it later on. Participants were then cued to mentally visualize the images within an empty rectangular box shown on the screen. Brain imaging and eye-tracking technology simultaneously captured the brain activity and eye movements of the participants as they memorized and remembered the pictures.
The study, led by RRI graduate student Michael Bone, discovered the same pattern of eye movements and brain activation, but compressed, when the picture was memorized and then remembered.
"This is likely because when we recall a memory, it's a condensed version of the original experience. For example, if a marriage proposal took two minutes, when we picture this memory in our head, we re-experience it in a much shorter timeframe," says Dr. Buchsbaum. "The eye movements are like a short-hand code that your brain runs through to trigger the memory."
By looking at the patterns of eye movement and brain activity, researchers were able to identify which image a person was remembering during the task.
As next steps, the study will explore distinguishing whether the eye movements lead the brain to reactivate the memory or vice versa. Having a greater understanding of this causal relationship could inform the creation of a diagnostic tool using the eyes to catch when a person's memory is headed down an unhealthy path, adds Dr. Buchsbaum.
Research for this study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and conducted in collaboration with RRI senior scientist Dr. Jennifer Ryan, post-doctoral fellow Marie St.-Laurent and RRI research assistants Christa Dang and Douglas McQuiggan.
With additional funding, researchers could tackle improving the accessibility and user-friendliness of an eye-tracking cognitive test.
About Baycrest Health Sciences
Now in its 100th year, Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals and one of the world's top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute. Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and is the developer of Cogniciti - a free online memory assessment for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory. Founded in 1918 as the Jewish Home for Aged, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: http://www.baycrest.org
About Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.
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