Human memory: how to improve yours

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Many of us wish we had better memories: be it so that we can pass our exams; remember what to buy from the supermarket; or even remember what we went upstairs for!

Here are some practical ways you can try to improve your memory.


Your mother probably always told you to eat fish as it will make you brainy. An old wives tale you might think, but oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, are actually high in Omega 3. According to the NHS eating foods that are high in Omega 3, can be particularly beneficial. So perhaps your mother was right after all!

Trial about Omega 3 supplements improving memory. Source: BBC - Horizon

Another more recent study has proposed that diet can also have a negative effect upon memory. Research published in the Journal of Physiology demonstrated that a diet high in sugar can impair cognitive abilities such as memory.

The study was carried out on rats using a Barnes maze, which is a maze to test a rat’s memory. The rats that had a higher fructose intake performed worse on the test.

Barnes Maze - Dr. Paulson's Lab

A rat using a Barnes Maze.

The research also showed that rats on a diet low in Omega 3 demonstrated memory problems in the maze. The combined effect of a diet low in Omega 3 and high in fructose, led to metabolic changes in the brain. More specifically, it led to a decrease in phosphorylation of three proteins: CREB, synapsin 1 and synaptophysin, which caused a reduction in synaptic plasticity.

Overall, the research showed that to have the best chance of a good memory you should eat a diet low in sugar and high in Omega 3. So put down those sweets and head out to the fishmongers!

Sleeping well

A piece of advice commonly given to students studying for exams is to make sure you get a good night’s sleep; but does this actually work?

According to researchers, from a range of neuroscience groups in Pennsylvania, Glasgow and Toronto, sleep deprivation can cause forgetfulness. They found that being deprived of sleep causes chemical changes in the hippocampus region of the brain.

Specifically, they found that sleep deprived mice had an increase in the level of enzyme PDE4 (a phosphodiesterase) and a decrease in the level of cAMP, a messenger molecule already known to play a big part in long-term memory.

The researchers found that they were able to treat the memory problems associated with sleep deprivation by giving the mice a drug called Rolipram.

But before you start searching for this miracle drug, it is important to note that it did have side effects in the mice. Moreover, Christopher G. Vescey, the leader of the research, distinctly stated, in his interview with Kerri Smith from Nature, that the drug was not aimed at being an alternative to sleep.

Thus, it seems if you want to improve your memory, making sure you get enough sleep really is key!

Reducing stress

Stress, anxiety and depression are three of the most common reasons why people may suffer from poor memory. These conditions tend to cause poor memory; for the individuals with them fail to notice things properly in the first place.

This is obviously bad news if you are trying to revise for exams, which is notorious for being a stressful time. Yet this is just evidence for making sure that you don’t let the revision get you too down, for this will not help you to remember all the facts you need to know!

The downsides of having a good memory

Despite how many of us wish we had a better memory, there can be downsides to such a perceived asset.

A recent study, published in the American journal PNAS, highlights how having a good memory means that you are also more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder after experiencing a traumatic experience, such as war.

So perhaps not having the best memory isn’t so bad after all!


April Cashin-Garbutt

Written by

April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.


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