What's a hippocampus?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

First off, I'm not a brain expert. But I learned this week that I have a hippocampus in my brain. You have one too.

In fact, two of them; one on each side of the brain

Hippocampus is the brain's control center. It controls our learning and memory. It first establishes a memory, stores it in our long term memory, then retrieves it. It converts short term memory to more permanent memory.

I wondered where the name hippocampus originated so I searched for the answer on the Internet.

It seems that long ago anatomists thought the curved shape of the hippocampus resembled a sea horse.

In Greek the word hippos means horse and the word kampos is sea monster. Therefore that translated to sea horse or hippocampus.

The hippocampus can go up or down, depending on numerous factors, including stress.

If you are stressed out, the stress hormone increases, causing your hippocampus to decrease. Your concentration is adversely affected. You can't seem to store or retrieve information

You forget your lawyer's name or can't recall a familiar phone number.

One day you need to cite your social security number. Suddenly you can't remember it, though you've quoted it numerous times. At a social gathering you meet several people. Later you can't recall their names. Your brain probably never encoded that information.

I think sometimes we have too much to remember. Time was when we had only one phone number to memorize and maybe a combination lock. Now we are flooded with passwords, PINs, codes, cell phone numbers, et cetera.

This week I was trying to recall the name of a certain barbecue sauce, Wickers. I couldn't think of it. I struggled to retrieve the name from my memory. I finally thought of it. Then I walked into the living room where an old black and white movie was showing on television. Without hesitation I knew and recalled the name of the leading movie star, Robert Ryan.

Now how could my brain retrieve that name? Robert Ryan died 36 years ago and hadn't made a movie since 1974. He was popular in 1950s and 1960s movies.

His name and face had been encoded, and then retrieved from my hippocampus.

How did that work? First I established a memory, then cataloged it, then retrieved it.

The brain is like a reference in a card catalog. You look up the information for a certain face, and it sends you the name.

It's true that as we age, our hippocampus wanes.

In Alzheimer's disease the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage, with memory loss. Damage can be caused by oxygen starvation, encephalitis and epilepsy and severe depression too.

My mother had Alzheimer's disease in her latter years. The way she thought was a puzzlement to me. At age 90 she could reach into her memory store house and recall what she was wearing, in detail, when she danced around the May pole in first grade. She also remembered the name of the classmate who danced around the May pole with her.

Yet she couldn't remember something I said to her just seconds before. She had no short term memory recollections. She couldn't remember what she had for lunch or if she had eaten it at all.

For those who don't suffer from Alzheimer's, there are ways to boost the brain storing techniques. We can improve the hippocampus by exercising the brain and the body.

We need to pay attention, to concentrate.

How many times have you gone into a room with the intentions of doing or getting something, then getting side-tracked. That's because we aren't concentrating...

Deliberately noticing details can improve the hippocampus too. It seems silly but just repeating the task, aloud or silently, will help. "I am taking my blood pressure medicine," or "I am locking the back door." Those reminders set routine tasks in our memory center.

Experts say that working puzzles is good for the hippocampus. So are timed games and new learning ventures. New brain cells form when we learn something, like playing the guitar.

A longtime friend, John, has spent years working crossword puzzles, one or two daily. He has also cataloged several hundred line dance movements in his mind. By doing those things, he is strengthening his hippocampus.

Perhaps learning biblical scriptures would be another way of improving the function of the brain's control center. Stretch the brain and stretch the body.

We need to make new memories. If not, we'd be stuck in the past of old memories.

Okay, that was our lesson for today. Maybe you learned a new word, I did.

But I'm still not a brain expert.