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How learning new ideas changes brain cells

Feb. 28, 2014
Courtesy of the Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia
and World Science staff

A new study iden­ti­fies an im­por­tant mo­lec­u­lar change that oc­curs in the brain when we learn and re­mem­ber.

Pub­lished this month in the jour­nal Na­ture Neu­ro­sci­ence, the re­search found that learn­ing af­fects brain cells in a way that leads a small mol­e­cule called a fat­ty ac­id to at­tach it­self to an­oth­er one, the pro­tein delta-ca­ten­in. This en­ables changes in brain cell con­nec­ti­vity as­so­ci­at­ed with learn­ing.

In an­i­mal mod­els, the sci­en­tists found al­most twice the amount of mod­i­fied delta-ca­te­nin in the brain af­ter learn­ing about new en­vi­ron­ments. While delta-ca­te­nin has pre­vi­ously been linked to learn­ing, this study is the first to de­scribe the pro­tein’s role in the mo­lec­u­lar mech­an­ism be­hind mem­o­ry forma­t­ion.

“More work is needed, but this dis­cov­ery gives us a much bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the tools our brains use to learn and re­mem­ber, and pro­vides in­sight in­to how these pro­cesses be­come dis­rupted in neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal dis­eases,” said study co-author Sh­er­naz Bamji of the Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia.

It may al­so pro­vide an ex­plana­t­ion for some men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, the re­search­ers say. Peo­ple born with­out the gene have a se­vere form of men­tal re­tarda­t­ion called Cri-du-chat syn­drome, a rare ge­net­ic dis­or­der named for the high-pitched cat-like cry of af­fect­ed in­fants. Dis­rup­tion of the gene for mak­ing the delta-catenin mol­e­cule has al­so been seen in some pa­tients with schiz­o­phre­nia.

“Brain ac­ti­vity can change both the struc­ture of this pro­tein, as well as its func­tion,” said study co-author Ste­fano Bri­gi­di. “When we in­tro­duced a muta­t­ion that blocked the bio­chem­i­cal modifica­t­ion that oc­curs in healthy sub­jects, we abol­ished the struc­tur­al changes in brain’s cells that are known to be im­por­tant for mem­o­ry forma­t­ion.”

Dis­rup­tions to these nerve cell con­nec­tions are al­so be­lieved to cause neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases such as Alzheimer’s and Hun­ting­ton dis­ease. Sci­en­tists hope that un­der­stand­ing the pro­cesses that help main­tain these con­nec­tions may help ad­dress the nerve cell ab­nor­mal­i­ties that oc­cur in these dis­eases.


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A new study identifies an important molecular change that occurs in the brain when we learn and remember. Published this month in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the research shows that learning affects brain cells in a way that leads a small molecule called a fatty acid to attach itself to another one, the protein delta-catenin. This process is critical in producing the changes in brain cell connectivity associated with learning, the study finds. In animal models, the scientists found almost twice the amount of modified delta-catenin in the brain after learning about new environments. While delta-catenin has previously been linked to learning, this study is the first to describe the protein’s role in the molecular mechanism behind memory formation. “More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases,” said study co-author Shernaz Bamji of the University of British Columbia. It may also provide an explanation for some mental disabilities, the researchers say. People born without the gene have a severe form of mental retardation called Cri-du-chat syndrome, a rare genetic disorder named for the high-pitched cat-like cry of affected infants. Disruption of the gene for making the delta-catenin molecule has also been seen in some patients with schizophrenia. “Brain activity can change both the structure of this protein, as well as its function,” said study co-author Stefano Brigidi. “When we introduced a mutation that blocked the biochemical modification that occurs in healthy subjects, we abolished the structural changes in brain’s cells that are known to be important for memory formation.” Disruptions to these nerve cell connections are also believed to cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington disease. Scientists hope that understanding the processes that help maintain these connections may help address the nerve cell abnormalities that occur in these diseases.