Dutch Researchers Uncover New Learning Mechanism in Adult Brain

Dutch researchers have announced the results of a recent study that better illustrates how the adult brain adapts to new situations. This may have implications for the learning process in general, and for developmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia. The complete report is published in the journal Neuron.

Using fluorescent proteins to isolate specific synapses in the brains of mice, the researchers were able to observe how individual nerve bundles responded to a change in perception—in this case, by having one of their eyes blindfolded for a short time.

As the brain matures, some of the synapses responsible for exciting electrical signals change to become inhibitory. As many as one fifth of adult brain cells function in this way. The blindfolded mice, however, began to show signs that the previously inhibitory synapses were disappearing. They were replaced with active synapses more akin to those found in young mice. In effect, the act of learning made the brain more elastic and able to learn.

This is not to say that inhibitory neurons are bad. Far from it. They are vital to the effective flow of signals across the brain, and disorders affecting the development of inhibitory synapses could be responsible for a range of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia. Understanding how they form and are destroyed will help sufferers of such diseases better regulate their symptoms.

Source: Neuron

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