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Carnegie Mellon study identifies impact of neural connections in learning process

Through a clever experimental design, Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists have validated decades of experiments to show how learning and memory may be encoded in a living animal. The research, published in the March issue of Neuron, identifies for the first time the specific neural connections that strengthen as an animal's brain responds to new experiences.

"We are very excited by this finding and the ability of researchers worldwide to build upon it," said the study's principal investigator Alison Barth, assistant professor of biological sciences at the university's Mellon College of Science.

According to Barth, the study is the first to verify "synaptic plasticity" in a living animal's brain that has not been artificially altered to affect neural transmission. Synaptic plasticity is the process in which molecular changes modify a single neuron's activity in a living animal.

"Verifying this principle of synaptic plasticity to how neurons function in vivo is critical to advancing our knowledge of the mechanisms that underlie learning and memory," Barth added.

Many neuroscientists believe that the cellular basis of learning and memory results from molecular-scale changes occurring at synapses, the communication junctions between neurons. Although great strides have been made in identifying how different patterns of neuronal activity can alter synapses in vitro and in revealing long-term or short-term synaptic plasticity, Barth said it has been unclear whether these findings hold true in a normal, unaltered brain.

Previous research has artificially stimulated neurons or genetically modified them so that they produce an abundance of AMPA receptors, molecules on the surface of some neurons that are implicated in learning and memory. But such experiments alter the native environment of the brain and may influence the normal activity at a single synapse, explains Barth.

"Evidence from in vitro studies and in vivo
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Contact: Lauren Ward
wardle@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-7761
Carnegie Mellon University
1-Mar-2006


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