How can people remember moments from their childhoods in vivid detail, but struggle to recall the name of a person they met yesterday?

From past experiences that define who we are, to everyday minutiae like what we need from the grocery store, memories rely on the brain’s ability to bind together pieces of information. A variety of factors influence this binding process, such as the type of information the brain is attempting to connect, the context of that information or the effects of aging on the brain.

With a background in cognitive neuroscience, Associate Professor of Psychology Amy Overman investigates how the brain forms and retrieves memories, and how that process differs in younger and older adults. Her ultimate goal is to gain a better understanding of how memory works, and subsequently develop methods to reduce age-related memory impairment.

For the past 10 years, Overman has analyzed factors that change the strength of the connections that form memories. She is in the first year of a three-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health to advance this work.

Overman measures her participants’ ability to form the links that drive memories by altering a multitude of variables in her lab, such as the speed at which people are exposed to new information, the configuration in which the stimuli are viewed and the types of stimuli used (pictures, words, sounds). For example, one hypothesis she is testing is that the brain processes information differently when people view two objects side by side (item-item) versus an object over a scene (item-context).

The hippocampus is a critical area of the brain in which the binding of information takes place, and it declines as people get older, even in healthy adults. While item-context connections rely on a high-functioning hippocampus, Overman’s work suggests that item-item connections can form in a different area of the brain when the hippocampus has reduced function. She analyzes behavioral data such as memory accuracy to measure the difference in her participants’ performance in each condition, as well as neural data captured by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

Her research suggests that presenting the same stimuli to older adults in a different way could recruit a healthier part of the brain and modify the way older adults form and retrieve memories. Preliminary results show that with this alternate route to memory retrieval, older adults can perform more similarly to younger adults.

Simply by changing the way we show stimuli to older adults, we can modify how their memory is formed. It’s really cool to think that you can tweak a little something and turn on this area of the brain that wasn’t on before.

Mentoring is a significant component of Overman’s scholarly identity, and she includes students in every step of the research process. She runs her lab with an apprenticeship model, so her student researchers help her design experiments, analyze data and review literature. They co-present at conferences and co-author peer-reviewed scientific journal articles.

Overman emphasizes to her students the importance of their work as “discovery science” – forging new territory in the field by learning things no one else knows yet. But their current research also has practical applications. By mapping where memories live in the brain and determining how to prompt the brain to retrieve those memories in a different way, scientists can help older adults develop new approaches to absorbing and retaining information as they age.