For the processing of memories, human beings must be able to forget.
Learning is one of our most important skills. To learn requires memory. However, perhaps counter-intuitively, forgetting is just as important. It clears our brain of unnecessary baggage, thus providing capacity for new learning content. If one cannot forget, one's brain is flooded with data without the means to process it.
The biologist Simon Sprecher from the University of Fribourg explores the interplay between remembering and forgetting. In order to do this, he investigates approximately one hundred genes that are responsible for both processes. He uses fruit flies for his studies. He switches off one gene after another and examines the effect this has on the memory of the flies.
In doing so, he can watch the processes involved in remembering or forgetting in real time. The physicists in Sprecher's team have developed a high-resolution light microscope, which enables him to look into a fly’s brain and observe the activity of each individual nerve cell. "This way, we can see which connections are stronger or weaker in the flies that forget easily." The results could one day help in the development of drugs for diseases like Alzheimer's.