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New Study Shows Concussion Memory Loss Recovery in Mice

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 19 Jan 2024

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Two cartoon mice wearing football uniforms
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You’ve heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — better known as CTE. This is the repeated head injury syndrome frequently associated with contact sports or trauma sustained during military service. Even a one-off hit on the head can lead to a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In the moment, a TBI can result in slurred speech, vision loss, or nausea. Long term, TBIs can lead to balance problems, emotional changes, and memory loss.

Now, a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that it may be possible to recover some of the memory loss associated with CTE and TBIs. This could happen by using tiny lasers to stimulate synaptic plasticity in the brain. (Nod and pretend like you know what that means—we’ll get to it in a second.)

The good news is that this technique showed positive results in mice, and a similar procedure could one day lead to new therapeutic options for humans suffering from serious concussions or head injuries.

We’re breaking down what the study found and why you should care.

Recovering Memory Loss From CTE and TBI

High-Frequency Head Impact Memory Decline

The study, first published in the Journal of Neuroscience in January 2024, examined cognitive deficits due to repeated head impacts in mice. If you’re wondering how they got all those cute little mice to put on football helmets and crash into each other at full speed, I’m here to tell you the head injuries were somewhat more nefarious in origin. Let’s just say there was a control group of mice and a second group of mice that was “subjected to high-frequency head impacts” and leave it at that. All in the name of science.

But here’s the important part. Both groups of mice were placed in anxiety-inducing situations (these poor rodents), but, when later cued with the same experience, only the control group of mice exhibited fear. In other words, the head-injury mice didn’t seem to remember that something bad happened last time.

By looking at brain scans, the researchers confirmed that the injured mice had lost a degree of synaptic plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to strengthen or weaken connections between neurons. This plasticity is a foundational component of learning and memory. Neuroscientists commonly describe this process as the brain’s rewiring. Old connections are removed, and new connections form.

Using optogenetics, which is a process that makes neurons sensitive to light and then uses small light pulses to trigger the neurons’ firing, scientists were able to jumpstart the synaptic connections that weren’t happening in the injured mice.

When they did, they found the concussed mice now exhibited a memory of the earlier negative stimulation. The procedure effectively reversed the memory loss due to head trauma.

A New Look at Amnesia

Like the partner to that odd-numbered sock you pulled out of the dryer, a lost memory is somewhere in your brain, even if you can’t find it right now. This is an important discovery because it suggests that neurons themselves aren’t irreplaceably damaged during memory loss. In fact, memory loss may even be bad terminology. This study confirms that “trouble accessing stored memories” is a better descriptor of amnesia than “lost memories.”

Of course, the implications for victims of CTE or a TBI are profound. Our brains forget things all the time — often on purpose to clear out space — but it’s a problem when short-term memory loss affects relationships and daily functioning. If the procedure used in this study could become a therapy option available to humans, it may help restore the memories of those recovering from serious head injuries.

Could This Cure CTE?

Repeated head trauma is bad for your brain in many ways. Memory loss is just one part of it. This study shows a possibility for recovering memory in patients with concussions, but it doesn’t address the full scope of deterioration of vital brain functioning that can happen as a result of TBIs.

Still wear your helmet and avoid head contact any time you’re playing sports. But this study is an exciting new window into how the brain forms memories and how we might treat patients with amnesia in the future. 

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He's fascinated by memory formation in the brain and has a dark sense of humor when it comes to lab mice.

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