To live and learn: Making memories has to be a speedy business

October 15, 2013, McGill University
To live and learn: Making memories has to be a speedy business
These are images of nerve cells. Nerve cells' polyribosomes are stalled downstream of the first round of translation elongation. Credit: Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital - The Neuro

The brain is plastic - adapting to the hundreds of experiences in our daily lives by reorganizing pathways and making new connections between nerve cells. This plasticity requires that memories of new information and experiences are formed fast. So fast that the body has a special mechanism, unique to nerve cells, that enables memories to be made rapidly. In a new study from The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, The Neuro, McGill University with colleagues at the Université de Montréal, researchers have discovered that nerve cells have a special 'pre-assembly' technique to expedite the manufacture of proteins at nerve cell connections (synapses), enabling the brain to rapidly form memories and be plastic.

Making a requires the production of proteins at synapses. These proteins then change the strength of the connection or pathway. In the for memory proteins is already pre-assembled at the synapse but stalled just before completion, awaiting the proper signals to finish, thereby speeding up the entire process. When it comes time to making the memory, the process is switched on and the is made in a flash. The mechanism is analogous to a pre-fab home, or pre-made pancake batter that is assembled in advance and then quickly completed in the correct location at the correct time.

"It's not only important to make proteins in the right place but, it's also important not to make the protein when it's the wrong time," says Dr. Wayne Sossin, neuroscientist at The Neuro and senior investigator on the paper. "This is especially important with nerve cells in the brain, as you only want the brain to make precise connections. If this process is indiscriminate, it leads to neurological disease. This mechanism to control memory protein synthesis solves two problems: 1) how to make proteins only at the right time and 2) how to make proteins as quickly as possible in order to tightly associate the synaptic change with the experience/memory.

Making proteins from genetic material involves two major steps [a Nobel prize was awarded for the identification of the cell's protein-making process]. In the first step, called transcription, the information in DNA that is stored and protected within the centre of the cell is copied to a messenger RNA (mRNA) – this copy is then moved to where it is needed in the cell. In the second step, called translation, the mRNA is used as a template of genetic information and 'read' by little machines called ribosomes, which decode the mRNA sequence and stitch together the correct to form the protein.

Dr. Sossin's group at The Neuro has discovered that the mRNA travels to the synapse already attached to the ribosome, with the protein production process stopped just before completion of the product (at the elongation/termination step of translation, where amino acids are being assembled into protein). The 'pre-assembly' process then waits for synaptic signals before re-activating to produce a lot of proteins quickly in order to form a memory. "Our results reveal a new underlying translation-dependent synaptic plasticity, which is dysregulated in neurodevelopmental and psychiatric pathologies", added Dr. Sossin. "Understanding the pathways involved may provide new therapeutic targets for neurodevelopmental disorders. "

Explore further: Finding the way to memory: Guidance proteins regulate brain plasticity

Related Stories

Finding the way to memory: Guidance proteins regulate brain plasticity

February 4, 2013
Our ability to learn and form new memories is fully dependent on the brain's ability to be plastic – that is to change and adapt according to new experiences and environments. A new study from the Montreal Neurological ...

Recommended for you

Neuroscientists suggest a model for how we gain volitional control of what we hold in our minds

January 16, 2018
Working memory is a sort of "mental sketchpad" that allows you to accomplish everyday tasks such as calling in your hungry family's takeout order and finding the bathroom you were just told "will be the third door on the ...

New study reveals why some people are more creative than others

January 16, 2018
Creativity is often defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. Like intelligence, it can be considered a trait that everyone – not just creative "geniuses" like Picasso and Steve Jobs – possesses in ...

Even without nudging blood pressure up, high-salt diet hobbles the brain

January 16, 2018
A high-salt diet may spell trouble for the brain—and for mental performance—even if it doesn't push blood pressure into dangerous territory, new research has found.

Brain imaging predicts language learning in deaf children

January 15, 2018
In a new international collaborative study between The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, researchers created a machine learning algorithm that uses brain scans to predict ...

Preterm babies may suffer setbacks in auditory brain development, speech

January 15, 2018
Preterm babies born early in the third trimester of pregnancy are likely to experience delays in the development of the auditory cortex, a brain region essential to hearing and understanding sound, a new study reveals. Such ...

BOLD view of white matter

January 15, 2018
The brain consists of gray matter, which contains the nerve cell bodies (neurons), and white matter, bundles of long nerve fibers (axons) that until recently were considered passive transmitters of signals between different ...

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.