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The Making of a Memory Mechanism

Carl F. Craver
Journal of the History of Biology
Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), pp. 153-195
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4331783
Page Count: 43
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The Making of a Memory Mechanism
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Abstract

Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) is a kind of synaptic plasticity that many contemporary neuroscientists believe is a component in mechanisms of memory. This essay describes the discovery of LTP and the development of the LTP research program. The story begins in the 1950's with the discovery of synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus (a medial temporal lobe structure now associated with memory), and it ends in 1973 with the publication of three papers sketching the future course of the LTP research program. The making of LTP was a protracted affair. Hippocampal synaptic plasticity was initially encountered as an experimental tool, then reported as a curiosity, and finally included in the ontic store of the neurosciences. Early researchers were not investigating the hippocampus in search of a memory mechanism; rather, they saw the hippocampus as a useful experimental model or as a structure implicated in the etiology of epilepsy. The link between hippocampal synaptic plasticity and learning or memory was a separate conceptual achievement. That link was formulated in at least three different ways at different times: reductively (claiming that plasticity is identical to learning), analogically (claiming that plasticity is an example or model of learning), and mechanistically (claiming that plasticity is a component in learning or memory mechanisms). The hypothesized link with learning or memory, coupled with developments in experimental techniques and preparations, shaped how researchers understood LTP itself. By 1973, the mechanistic formulation of the link between LTP and memory provided an abstract framework around which findings from multiple perspectives could be integrated into a multifield research program.

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