When people ask Zoe Atherton, Ph.D., how to improve their memory, she tells them to take a nap.
Atherton, a postdoctoral fellow working in the Varela Lab led by Carmen Varela, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and member of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute, studies how sleep affects memory.
While we sleep, we convert our experiences into long-term memories by storing them across the various parts of the brain and thus, stabilizing them, she said. A deep brain region called the thalamus mediates communication between multiple brain regions to make this happen. It’s this process that Atherton investigates.
To do this, Atherton studies electrical signals of single brain cells in the thalamus while rats sleep, consolidating their experiences. From this, she can identify unique brain activity patterns that correlate with successful formation of long-term memories. “Understanding these memory processes at the cellular level can provide insight into why they are disrupted in disorders such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia,” she said.
Atherton said she’s been interested in neuroscience since her first psychology course as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol in England, when she learned about treatment for epilepsy in the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in peculiar breakdowns in brain communication. “I found it very complex and was compelled to study the brain further,” she said.
Later, she earned a doctorate from Cardiff University, Wales, U.K. where she researched the role of the thalamus in the manifestation of absence seizures, predominantly found in children.