New connections between brain cells form in clusters during learning

February 19, 2012
Brain

New connections between brain cells emerge in clusters in the brain as animals learn to perform a new task, according to a study published in Nature on February 19 (advance online publication). Led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the study reveals details of how brain circuits are rewired during the formation of new motor memories.

The researchers studied mice as they learned new behaviors, such as reaching through a slot to get a seed. They observed changes in the , the brain layer that controls muscle movements, during the learning process. Specifically, they followed the growth of new "dendritic spines," structures that form the connections () between .

"For the first time we are able to observe the spatial distribution of new synapses related to the encoding of memory," said Yi Zuo, assistant professor of molecular, cell and at UC Santa Cruz and corresponding author of the paper.

In a previous study, Zuo and others documented the rapid growth of new dendritic spines on pyramidal neurons in the motor cortex during the learning process. These spines form synapses where the pyramidal neurons receive input from other involved in motor memories and . In the new study, first author Min Fu, a postdoctoral researcher in Zuo's lab, analyzed the of the newly formed synapses.

Initial results of the spatial analysis showed that one third of the newly formed synapses were located next to another new synapse. These clustered synapses tended to form over the course of a few days during the learning period, when the mouse was repeatedly performing the new behavior. Compared to non-clustered counterparts, the clustered synapses were more likely to persist through the learning sessions and after training stopped.

In addition, the researchers found that after formation of the second spine in a cluster, the first spine grew larger. The size of the spine head correlates with the strength of the synapse. "We found that formation of a second connection is correlated with a strengthening of the first connection, which suggests that they are likely to be involved in the same circuitry," Zuo said. "The clustering of synapses may serve to magnify the strength of the connections."

Another part of the study also supported the idea that the clustered synapses are involved in neural circuits specific to the task being learned. The researchers studied mice trained first in one task and then in a different task. Instead of grabbing a seed, the mice had to learn how to handle a piece of capellini pasta. Both tasks induced the formation of clustered spines, but spines formed during the learning of different tasks did not cluster together.

The researchers also looked at mice that were challenged with new motor tasks every day, but did not repeat the same task over and over like the ones trained in seed-grabbing or capellini-handling. These mice also grew lots of new dendritic spines, but few of the new spines were clustered.

"Repetitive activation of the same cortical circuit is really important in learning a new task," Zuo said. "But what is the optimal frequency of repetition? Ultimately, by studying the relationship between synapse formation and learning, we want to find out the best way to induce new memories."

The study used mice that had been genetically altered to make a fluorescent protein within certain neurons in the motor cortex. The researchers used a special microscopy technique (two-photon microscopy) to obtain images of those neurons near the surface of the brain. The noninvasive imaging technique enabled them to view changes in individual of the mice before, during, and after a new behavior.

Explore further: Scientists discover brain structures associated with learning

Related Stories

Scientists discover brain structures associated with learning

May 2, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Scientists at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI, part of the Novartis Research Foundation) have discovered neuronal connections which are formed in the brain when learning occurs, ...

If you don't snooze, do you lose? Wake-sleep patterns affect brain synapses

October 9, 2011
An ongoing lack of sleep during adolescence could lead to more than dragging, foggy teens, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study suggests.

Recommended for you

Researchers find monkey brain structure that decides if viewed objects are new or unidentified

August 18, 2017
A team of researchers working at the University of Tokyo School of Medicine has found what they believe is the part of the monkey brain that decides if something that is being viewed is recognizable. In their paper published ...

Artificial neural networks decode brain activity during performed and imagined movements

August 18, 2017
Artificial intelligence has far outpaced human intelligence in certain tasks. Several groups from the Freiburg excellence cluster BrainLinks-BrainTools led by neuroscientist private lecturer Dr. Tonio Ball are showing how ...

Study of nervous system cells can help to understand degenerative diseases

August 18, 2017
The results of a new study show that many of the genes expressed by microglia differ between humans and mice, which are frequently used as animal models in research on Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

How whip-like cell appendages promote bodily fluid flow

August 18, 2017
Researchers at Nagoya University have identified a molecule that enables cell appendages called cilia to beat in a coordinated way to drive the flow of fluid around the brain; this prevents the accumulation of this fluid, ...

Researchers make surprising discovery about how neurons talk to each other

August 17, 2017
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have uncovered the mechanism by which neurons keep up with the demands of repeatedly sending signals to other neurons. The new findings, made in fruit flies and mice, challenge ...

Neurons involved in learning, memory preservation less stable, more flexible than once thought

August 17, 2017
The human brain has a region of cells responsible for linking sensory cues to actions and behaviors and cataloging the link as a memory. Cells that form these links have been deemed highly stable and fixed.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.