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Study in flies allows researchers to visualize formation of a memory

For the first time, researchers have used a technique called optical imaging to visualize changes in nerve connections when flies learn. These changes may be the beginning of a complex chain of events that leads to formation of lasting memories. The study was funded in part by the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and appears in the May 13, 2004, issue of Neuron.*

Scientists have long been captivated by the questions of how memories form and how they are represented in the brain. The answers to these questions may help researchers understand how to treat or prevent memory problems, drug addiction, and other human ailments. Thousands of changes in gene expression, neuron formation, nerve signaling, and other characteristics may be involved in the formation of just a single memory. Scientists refer to any learning-induced change in the brain as a "memory trace."

In the new study, Ronald L. Davis, Ph.D., and colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston developed fruit flies with special genes that caused the flies' neuronal connections to become fluorescent during nerve signaling (synaptic transmission). They then exposed the flies to brief puffs of an odor while they received a shock. This caused them to learn a new association between the odor and the shock a type of learning called classical conditioning.

Using a high-powered microscope to watch the fluorescent signals in flies' brains with as they learned, the researchers discovered that a specific set of neurons, called projection neurons, had a greater number of active connections with other neurons after the conditioning experiment. These newly active connections appeared within 3 minutes after the experiment, suggesting that the synapses which became active after the learning took place were already formed but remained "silent" until they were needed to represent the new memory. The new synaptic activity disappeared by 7 minutes after
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Contact: Natalie Frazin or Paul Girolami
301-496-5924
NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
12-May-2004


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