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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' helps study brain's sense of time

"We chose this show in particular because we thought it contained events that were relatable, engaging and interesting," neuroscientist Michael Yassa said.

By Brooks Hays
'Curb Your Enthusiasm' helps study brain's sense of time
Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" helped scientists study the way the human brain processes time. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 16 (UPI) -- With the help of a group of college students and the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, scientists have gained a better understanding of how the brain time-stamps memories.

Using high-powered functional MRI, scientists observed brain patterns as students watched the hit TV show starring comedian Larry David. After watching an episode, scientists recorded the students' brain signals as they viewed still frames from the episode.

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When participants were able to accurately recall the timing of events featured in a specific still frame, scientists noticed a surge of neural activity in the lateral entorhinal cortex and the perirhinal cortex.

Researchers detailed their discovery this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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"The field of neuroscience has focused extensively on understanding how we encode and store information about space, but time has always been a mystery," Michael Yassa, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, said in a news release. "This study and the Moser team's study represent the first cross-species evidence for a potential role of the lateral entorhinal cortex in storing and retrieving information about when experiences happen."

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Both the lateral entorhinal cortex and the perirhinal cortex surround the hippocampus and have previously been identified as important to the formation of memories related to objects but not spatial location.

"Space and time have always been intricately linked, and the common wisdom in our field was that the mechanisms involved in one probably supported the other as well," said lead researcher Maria Montchal, a grad student in Yassa's lab. "But our results suggest otherwise."

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Last year, researchers in Yassa's lab published a study showing adults with lower-than-average memory performance exhibited signs of dysfunction in the lateral entorhinal cortex and the perirhinal cortex.

Scientists have struggled to set up lab tests that replicate the way humans and their brains process time in the real world. Curb Your Enthusiasm offered a breakthrough. Its characters, scenes, dialogue, humor and pacing reflect the narrative qualities of everyday life.

"We chose this show in particular because we thought it contained events that were relatable, engaging and interesting," Yassa said. "We also wanted one without a laugh track. Interestingly, while the show is hilarious for some of us, it did not seem to instigate a lot of laughter among the college undergraduates we tested -- which was excellent for us, as we needed to keep their heads inside the scanner."

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