Electrophysiological and cellular imaging studies show that only a portion of neurons are involved in a given memory. Why is one neuron, rather than its neighbor, included in a particular memory? Han et al. ... found that neurons in the lateral amygdala that contain the highest levels of function of the transcription factor CREB at the time of the encoding of an auditory fear memory are those that preferentially express the activity-regulated gene Arc after the recall of the memory. Thus, neurons compete during memory formation, and CREB helps to determine the winners.
The abstract from Han et al. :
Competition between neurons is necessary for refining neural circuits during development and may be important for selecting the neurons that participate in encoding memories in the adult brain. To examine neuronal competition during memory formation, we conducted experiments with mice in which we manipulated the function of CREB (adenosine 3',5'-monophosphate response element–binding protein) in subsets of neurons. Changes in CREB function influenced the probability that individual lateral amygdala neurons were recruited into a fear memory trace. Our results suggest a competitive model underlying memory formation, in which eligible neurons are selected to participate in a memory trace as a function of their relative CREB activity at the time of learning.