Losing keys or sunglasses? An unlikely event for the dozen-odd people who can remember every moment of their lives.
Scientists at the UC Irvine recently announced that people with highly superior autobiographical memories may have differently shaped brains than the average person.
The UCI study found structural variations in the brains and mental processes of nearly a dozen people who recall their lives perfectly since about age 10.
The phenomenon of highly superior autobiographical memory—first documented in 2006 by UCI neurobiologist James McGaugh and colleagues in a woman identified as "AJ"—has been profiled on CBS's "60 Minutes" and in hundreds of other media outlets. But a new paper in the July issue of peer-reviewed journal Neurobiology of Learning & Memory offers the first scientific findings about nearly a dozen people with this uncanny ability.
Each had variations in nine parts of their brains, most in areas linked to autobiographical memory, "so we're getting a descriptive, coherent story of what's going on," said lead author Aurora LePort, a doctoral candidate at UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.
LePort said interviewing the subjects was "baffling. You give them a date, and their response is immediate. The day of the week just comes out of their minds; they don't even think about it. They can do this for so many dates, and they're 99 percent accurate. It never gets old."
The study also found statistically significant evidence of obsessive-compulsive tendencies among the group, but the authors do not yet know if or how this aids recollection. Many of the individuals have large, minutely catalogued collections of some sort, such as magazines, videos, shoes, stamps or postcards.
UCI researchers and staff have assessed more than 500 people who thought they might possess highly superior autobiographical memory and have confirmed 33 to date, including the 11 in the paper. Another 37 are strong candidates who will be further tested.
"The next step is that we want to understand the mechanisms behind the memory," LePort said. "Is it just the brain and the way its different structures are communicating? Maybe it's genetic; maybe it's molecular."
McGaugh added: "We're Sherlock Holmeses here. We're searching for clues in a very new area of research."
Fellow authors are Aaron Mattfeld, Heather Dickinson-Anson, James Fallon, Craig Stark, Frithjof Kruggel and Larry Cahill. Funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the Gerard Family Trust and Unither Neurosciences Inc.