When we learn, we associate a sensory experience either with other stimuli or with a certain type of behaviour.
The neurons in the cerebral cortex that transmit the information modify the synaptic connections that they have with the other neurons. According to a generally-accepted model of synaptic plasticity, a neuron that communicates with others of the same kind emits an electrical impulse as well as activating its synapses transiently.
This electrical pulse, combined with the signal received from other neurons, acts to stimulate the synapses. How is it that some neurons are caught up in the communication interplay even when they are barely connected?
This is the crucial chicken-or-egg puzzle of synaptic plasticity that a team led by Anthony Holtmaat, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences in the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE, is aiming to solve. The results of their research into memory in silent neurons can be found in the latest edition of Nature.
Learning and memory are governed by a mechanism of sustainable synaptic strengthening. When we embark on a learning experience, our brain associates a sensory experience either with other stimuli or with a certain form of behaviour.
The neurons in the cerebral cortex responsible for ensuring the transmission of the relevant information, then modify the synaptic connections that they have with other neurons. This is the very arrangement that subsequently enables the brain to optimise the way information is processed when it is met again, as well as predicting its consequences.
Neuroscientists typically induce electrical pulses in the neurons artificially in order to perform research on synaptic mechanisms.
The neuroscientists from UNIGE, however, chose a different approach in their attempt to discover what happens naturally in the neurons when they receive sensory stimuli. They observed the cerebral cortices of mice whose whiskers were repeatedly stimulated mechanically without an artificially-induced electrical pulse. The rodents use their whiskers as a sensor for navigating and interacting; they are, therefore, a key element for perception in mice.
An extremely low signal is enough
By observing these natural stimuli, professor Holtmaat's team was able to demonstrate that sensory stimulus alone can generate long-term synaptic strengthening without the neuron discharging either an induced or natural electrical pulse. As a result – and contrary to what was previously believed – the synapses will be strengthened even when the neurons involved in a stimulus remain silent.
In addition, if the sensory stimulation lasts over time, the synapses become so strong that the neuron in turn is activated and becomes fully engaged in the neural network. Once activated, the neuron can then further strengthen the synapses in a forwards and backwards movement. These findings could solve the brain's "What came first?" mystery, as they make it possible to examine all the synaptic pathways that contribute to memory, rather than focusing on whether it is the synapsis or the neuron that activates the other.
The entire brain is mobilised
A second discovery lay in store for the researchers. During the same experiment, they were also able to establish that the stimuli that were most effective in strengthening the synapses came from secondary, non-cortical brain regions rather than major cortical pathways (which convey actual sensory information). Accordingly, storing information would simply require the co-activation of several synaptic pathways in the neuron, even if the latter remains silent.
These findings may also have important implications both for the way we understand learning mechanisms and for therapeutic possibilities, in particular for rehabilitation following a stroke or in neurodegenerative disorders. As professor Holtmaat explains: "It is possible that sensory stimulation, when combined with another activity (motor activity, for example), works better for strengthening synaptic connections". The professor concludes: "In the context of therapy, you could combine two different stimuli as a way of enhancing the effectiveness."
Anthony Holtmaat | Eurek Alert!
The balancing act: An enzyme that links endocytosis to membrane recycling
07.12.2016 | National Centre for Biological Sciences
Transforming plant cells from generalists to specialists
07.12.2016 | Duke University
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
07.12.2016 | Health and Medicine
07.12.2016 | Life Sciences
07.12.2016 | Health and Medicine