Scientists close in on understanding learning and memory

For decades, scientists have proposed that learning occurs and memories are stored when connections among nerve cells are weakened or strengthened, but there's been no direct way to prove it.

Now, a Johns Hopkins study using mouse cells reveals what seems to be the very last step that occurs as nerve cells temporarily weaken their connections. In the June 13 issue of Science, the Hopkins team also reports that blocking this step prevents connections from weakening without affecting anything else, making it possible -- finally -- to see if weakening connections really do contribute to learning and memory.

"Our finding defines what is happening during this process, called long term depression, and offers the first opportunity to engineer a mouse that will allow us to really examine carefully its role in learning motor skills," says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "There is a lot of controversy about whether this and a related process really underlie learning and memory because there's been no way to test the idea directly."

The crucial last step revealed in the Hopkins work is a single, tiny modification of a protein called GluR2, which helps brain cells detect the chemical glutamate. By preventing that modification, weakening didn't occur, and the mouse neurons stayed in touch with their neighbors when they shouldn't have.

"The beauty of having the nitty-gritty detail is that now we can create a mouse with just that single change and see what happens to its behavior," says co-author David Linden, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience.

Nerve cells "talk" to one another with the help of chemicals like glutamate. One neuron produces the chemical and sends it across to a neighboring cell where it latches on and creates a cascade of events inside the cell. In response to certain patterns of stimulation, a nerv

Contact: Joanna Downer
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

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