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Long-term changes in experience cause neurons to sprout new long-lasting connections

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have discovered that neurons in the brains of mice sprout robust new connections when the animals are adjusting to new experiences. The new connections alter the circuitry of the brain by changing communication between neurons.

The researchers said their findings aid understanding of how procedural learning induces long-term rewiring of the brain. This type of learning is used in mastering skills such as riding a bicycle or typing on a computer.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator Karel Svoboda and his colleagues reported their findings in the June 22, 2006, issue of the journal Nature. Other co-authors of the paper included Anthony Holtmaat and Linda Wilbrecht in Svoboda's laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and Graham Knott and Egbert Welker at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Svoboda is one of a handful of researchers in the world who are pioneering the development of new tools and techniques that permit scientists to observe the brain as it rewires over a period of weeks or months. This summer Svoboda will move to HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus where he will pursue neurobiology studies and projects in optics and microscopy.

In the studies reported in Nature, the researchers used mice that were genetically altered to produce a green fluorescent protein in specific neurons in the neocortex, which is a region of the brain that is known to adapt to new experiences. The researchers followed the growth of dendritic spines in the region of the neocortex that processes tactile information from the animals' whiskers. Sensory information from the whiskers is vitally important for mice as they navigate their environment. Consequently, a significant portion of the mouse's brain is devoted to processing input from whiskers.

To monitor changes in neuronal structure visually, the researchers used a novel technique that Svoboda's team had developed
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
21-Jun-2006


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