It has been said that our memories make us who we are. We turn our memories into stories with meaning and wisdom, and share them in the hope that others can learn from them. Our memories take different forms—some fleeting and others hardwired into our brains, available for quick recall. Our immune system remembers foreign invaders in order to stop them before they do damage, and our cells remember whether their DNA has suffered damage and undergone repairs. Yale Medicine spoke with Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., about the importance of memory in medicine, science, and beyond.

Why is the study of memory so important?

The study of memory is important because of its role in almost every biological process. We think of the brain as the location of memory, but almost every cellular and molecular process in the body uses memory to increase its efficiency. However, understanding memory in the brain is uniquely important because this form of memory defines who we are. We now live in an age where we survive cancer and heart disease, but later many become impaired by diseases such as Alzheimer's.

How will Yale's new Alzheimer's Disease Research Unit advance the study of disease and, hopefully, lead to better diagnosis and treatment?

When we performed strategic planning 10 years ago, one of the highest research priorities identified was neurodegenerative diseases, and in response, the Center for Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair (CNNR) was formed. The success of CNNR contributed to our ability to become an Alzheimer's unit. We still don't completely understand what causes amyloid protein or tau to accumulate in the brain, but we hope to use the Alzheimer's Disease Research Unit to advance our understanding and develop new therapies to address this disease.

What aspect of memory do you find most interesting?

The ability of the brain to create its own memory. People have memories that actually never happened or may not have happened exactly as remembered. If you tell a story enough times, it starts to become a true memory, triggering all of the biological mechanisms associated with long-term memory. This fascinates me.

What should readers remember from this issue of Yale Medicine?

They should remember the beauty of biology. While simple memory occurs in the simplest of organisms, the complex memory performed by our brains required a long time to evolve and defines the human species and other high-level species. To preserve these memories is one of the goals of medical research.