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!
Could this protein protect people against coronary artery disease?
17.11.2017 | University of North Carolina Health Care
Microbial resident enables beetles to feed on a leafy diet
17.11.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für chemische Ökologie
The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.
Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...
Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.
That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...
Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.
During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....
The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.
Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...
Pillared graphene would transfer heat better if the theoretical material had a few asymmetric junctions that caused wrinkles, according to Rice University...
15.11.2017 | Event News
15.11.2017 | Event News
30.10.2017 | Event News
17.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
17.11.2017 | Health and Medicine
17.11.2017 | Studies and Analyses