The Brain Uses Acid to Keep Unwanted Thoughts and Memories at Bay

The brain relies on a chemical messenger called GABA to keep unwanted thoughts on the back burner. . Ollyy/Shutterstock

Our brains store a lifetime's worth of thoughts and memories. And if organizing and filing those millions of moments were left to us, our brains would probably look and function a lot like a junk drawer.

We'd never be able to find the thought we needed at the right moment. Instead, as we fished around in that drawer, we'd probably keep coming up with the totally wrong thought for the occasion.

"Welcome to Olive Garden. May I take your order?"


<<< mobile-native-ad >>>Luckily, the job of keeping things feng shui — and knowing exactly what goes where — falls to the best candidate for the job: your brain.

A brilliant mistress of the cerebral household, your brain keeps unwanted thoughts — like the crippling stench in the elevator yesterday or that vengeful chili pepper that burned in your belly all night — at bay.

It files the past away — and offers the clarity you need for the moment.

But like everyone who's really good at their job, the brain hasn't shared many of its trade secrets. At least, until now.

GABA keeps things tidy

In a study, published earlier this month in the journal Nature Communications, researchers may have identified a key tool the brain uses to keep things sparkly clean: acid.

Specifically, GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid. For the study, researchers at the University of Cambridge studied how thoughts were suppressed in the brains of 24 young, healthy subjects. Most of the action took place in the hippocampus, the region that sorts long and short-term memories.

Researchers noted that when a brain needed to put a thought on the back burner, GABA was deployed to the hippocampus.. The more GABA a subject had in their hippocampus, the more effectively the unwanted thoughts were suppressed.

While some people showed a real gift for GABA, the research suggests others may not be so lucky. Low levels of GABA, they theorized, would result in errant thoughts and ever-restless minds. Essentially, a perennially distracted mind.

A drawing showing brain activity
A brain with low levels of GABA may have a hard time controlling and organizing thoughts and memories. posteriori/Shutterstock

Even more intriguing, the study may cast light on people who suffer from conditions that involve a total loss of control over their thoughts and memories — like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's.

Of course, fighting these diseases isn't likely a simple matter of ordering out for more GABA. For one thing, the study represents only the earliest stages of identifying the chemical messenger the brain uses — far from understanding how it's produced.

In fact, Cambridge scientists had to develop a complex means to even measure the elusive chemical messenger in the hippocampus, ultimately employing a magnetic resonance spectroscopy to reveal the brain's chemical content.

And for another thing, it would be hard to draw definitive conclusions from a small test group of healthy people.

But at the very least, the study casts much-needed light on the long-nebulous workings of thoughts and memories. And, of course, it's another reason to appreciate the marvel that is the brain — and its thankless commitment to cleaning up and sorting all our messes — so we can go on making even more of them.