How the brain stabilizes its connections in order to learn better
News Jul 18, 2014
Throughout our lives, our brains adapt to what we learn and memorise. The brain is indeed made up of complex networks of neurons and synapses that are constantly re-configured. However, in order for learning to leave a trace, connections must be stabilized. A team at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) discovered a new cellular mechanism involved in the long-term stabilization of neuron connections, in which non-neuronal cells, called astrocytes, play a role unidentified until now. These results, published in Current Biology, will lead to a better understanding of neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases.
The central nervous system excitatory synapses – points of contact between neurons that allow them to transmit signals – are highly dynamic structures, which are continuously forming and dissolving. They are surrounded by non-neuronal cells, or glial cells, which include the distinctively star-shaped astrocytes. These cells form complex structures around synapses, and play a role in the transmission of cerebral information which was widely unknown before.
Plasticity and Stability
By increasing neuronal activity through whiskers stimulation of adult mice, the scientists were able to observe, in both the somatosensory cortex and the hippocampus, that this increased neuronal activity provokes an increase in astrocytes movements around synapses. The synapses, surrounded by astrocytes, re-organise their architecture, which protects them and increases their longevity. The team of researchers led by Dominique Muller, Professor in the Department of Fundamental Neuroscience of the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE, developed new techniques that allowed them to specifically "control" the different synaptic structures, and to show that the phenomenon took place exclusively in the connections between neurons involved in learning. "In summary, the more the astrocytes surround the synapses, the longer the synapses last, thus allowing learning to leave a mark on memory," explained Yann Bernardinelli, the lead author on this study.
This study identifies a new, two-way interaction between neurons and astrocytes, in which the learning process regulates the structural plasticity of astrocytes, who in turn determine the fate of the synapses. This mechanism indicates that astrocytes apparently play an important role in the processes of learning and memory, which present abnormally in various neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases, among which Alzheimer's, autism, or Fragile X syndrome.
This discovery highlights the until now underestimated importance of cells which, despite being non-neuronal, participate in a crucial way in the cerebral mechanisms that allow us to learn and retain memories of what we have learned.
Note: Material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.
Yann Bernardinelli, Jerome Randall, Elia Janett, Irina Nikonenko, Stéphane König, Emma Victoria Jones, Carmen E. Flores, Keith K. Murai, Christian G. Bochet, Anthony Holtmaat, Dominique Muller. Activity-Dependent Structural Plasticity of Perisynaptic Astrocytic Domains Promotes Excitatory Synapse Stability. Current Biology, Published July 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.06.025
When infants are playing with objects, their early attempts to pay attention to things are accompanied by bursts of high-frequency activity in their brain. But what happens when parents play together with them? New research shows for the first time that when adults are engaged in joint play together with their infant, their own brains show similar bursts of high-frequency activity.
Many species of mammals have evolved what appear to be paradoxical behaviours towards their young. Like humans, most exhibit nurturing, protective behaviours, and in some circumstances even act as surrogate parents. However, virgin males often engage in infanticide as a strategy to propagate their own genes. How are these conflicting social behaviours controlled?