Now, an international collaboration of researchers made a big leap forward in understanding what all these newborn neurons might actually do. Their study, published in the July 10, 2009, issue of the journal Science, illustrates how these young cells improve our ability to navigate our environment.
"We believe that new brain cells help us to distinguish between memories that are closely related in space," says senior author Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., a professor in the Laboratory for Genetics at the Salk Institute and the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Diseases, who co-directed the study with Timothy J. Bussey, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Roger A. Barker, PhD., honorary consultant in Neurology at Addenbrookes Hospital and Lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
When the first clues emerged that adult human brains continually sprout new neurons, one of the central tenets of neuroscience—we are born with all the brain cells we'll ever have—was about to be overturned. Although it is never easy to shift a paradigm, a decade later the question is no longer whether neurogenesis exists but rather what all these new cells are actually good for.
Previous studies by a number of laboratories including Gage's had shown that new neurons somehow contribute to hippocampus-dependent learning and memory but the exact function remained unclear.
The dentate gyrus is the first relay station in the hippocampus for information coming from the cortex. While passing through, incoming signals are split up and distributed among 10 times as many cells. This process, called pattern separation, is thought to help the brain separate individual events that are part of incoming memories. "Since the dentate gyrus also happens to be the place where neurogenesis is occurring, we originally thought that adding new neurons could help with the pattern separation," says Gage.
This hypothesis allowed graduate student Claire Clelland, who divided her time between the La Jolla and the Cambridge labs, to design experiments that would specifically challenge this function of the dentate gyrus using different behavioral tasks and two distinct strategies to selectively shut down neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus.
In the first set of experiments, mice had to learn the location of a food reward that was presented relative to the location of an earlier reward within an eight-armed radial maze. "Mice without neurogenesis had no trouble finding the new location as long as it was far enough from the original location," says Clelland, "but couldn't differentiate between the two when they were close to each other."
A touch screen experiment confirmed the inability of neurogenesis-deficient mice to discriminate between locations in close proximity to each other but also revealed that these mice had no problem recalling spatial information in general. "Neurogenesis helps us to make finer distinctions and appears to play a very specific role in forming spatial memories," says Clelland. Adds Gage, "There is value in knowing something about the relationship between separate events and the closer they get the more important this information becomes."
But pattern separation might not be the only role that new neurons have in adult brain function: a computer model simulating the neuronal circuits in the dentate gyrus based on all available biological information suggested an additional function. "To our surprise, it turned out that newborn neurons actually form a link between individual elements of episodes occurring closely in time," says Gage.
Given this, he and his team are now planning experiments to see whether new neurons are also critical for coding temporal or contextual relationships.
Researchers who also contributed to the work include M. Choi, A. Fragniere, and P. Tyers in the Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge, UK, C. Romberg and L. M Saksida in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK, graduate student G. Dane Clemenson Jr. in the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and assistant professor Sebastian Jessberger, M.D. at the Institute of Cell Biology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.
About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies: The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world's preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused on both discovery and mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.
Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.
Gina Kirchweger | EurekAlert!
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
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,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy