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Ask Andre Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Andre Fenton won’t erase your memory (even though he could)… as long as you asked him a question.

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Read below, Secret Lifers.

Q: Susan

Dear Andre,

First, thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. You’re an inspiration! Here’s my question:
I know from experience how “restorative” meditation is, but I am curious about what is happening neurologically to make it so. Is the mental activity during meditation like any of the stages of sleep? (It seems different to me.)

A: Andre Fenton

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your comment and question. I’m not an expert on the neural correlates of meditation and I’m not sure anyone knows the neurobiology of why meditation is restorative. I have read that meditation is reported to increases the long-range synchrony and in particular gamma (30-100 Hz) oscillations in the scalp EEG of really experienced meditators. Gamma is only one type of a variety of oscillations that one can observe in electrical brain activity. I study gamma oscillations in rat and mouse brains. Gamma is a pattern of electrical activity in the brain that comes from the synchronized, orderly release of neurotransmitter at the synapses in certain brain areas. It is thus a sign of orderly brain function and in experimental work seems to be associated with higher cognitive functions like memory processing, separating information into what is relevant and irrelevant, and “binding” different component features of an experience into a holistic perception.

So all of this is to say that if I know anything, then the functional brain states associated with meditation are very different from those associated with sleep. The guess I would make is that the brain state of an experienced meditator resembles the brain state of someone who who is awake and actively engaged in understanding and synthesizing challenging information. That makes sense to me in that meditation, at least to me, is all about training the ability to focus. Hope that helps.

Q: Bradley Smith

When you discovered how to erase the memory or pkm zeta did you think this was good? Did you think this was a type of amnesia?

A: Andre Fenton

We set out to understand memory not erase it. My intention was and remains to understand the neurobiology of memory and we are only at the beginning. If anyone thought they knew the storage mechanism of memory there are basically 3 logical things to do to convince oneself and others. 1) Show you can erase memory by selectively interfering with the hypothesized mechanism, 2) Show that you can observe more (or less) of the hypothesized mechanism after learning, 3) Artificially generate the hypothesized mechanism and show that this creates memory that did not come from experience. We started with erasure because it was the easiest to achieve. Scientists are working on the other two approaches but these are harder..

Q: Aacherrington

Andre you are an interesting individual. To know the reason you specialized in neurobiology was to learn about your inner self is astounding. Do you believe this inhibitor of pk zeta will eventually be marketed?

A: Andre Fenton

The inhibitor we used, ZIP would not be useful clinically because it will “reset” all the strengthened synapses in a brain area it is administered to. I don’t know how to make an inhibitor that is memory specific, though I know people are trying to think of how to do that. The trick will be first to understand memory itself and we are far from doing that. We are making amazing progress but this is a very hard problem, some might say ne of the hardest.