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MIT provides first evidence for learning mechanism

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Finally confirming a fact that remained unproven for more than 30 years, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory report in the Aug. 25 issue of Science that certain key connections among neurons get stronger when we learn.

"We show what everyone has always believed: LTP (long-term potentiation) is indeed induced in the hippocampus when learning occurs," said Mark F. Bear, Picower Professor of Neuroscience. "This is a big deal for neuroscientists because such evidence has been absent for the 30-plus years we have known about LTP."

The findings described in the Bear paper and in a second, separate paper in the same issue of Science "substantially advance the case for LTP as a neural mechanism for memory," wrote Tim Bliss of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in the UK, Graham Collingridge of the University of Bristol, and Serge Laroche of the Universite Paris Sud in a commentary on the work.

LTP is an example of plasticity -- the amazing ability of the brain to change in response to experience. LTP builds up synapses, or the connections between neurons, while its counterpart, long-term depression, or LTD, pares unused synapses.

Since LTP was discovered in the late 1960s, thousands of papers have been published based on the assumption that the phenomenon is an important learning and memory mechanism in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain.

Researchers had found that electrical stimulation of neurons, mimicking the electrical impulses that zap around the brain when it responds to sensory input, strengthens the connections among synapses. The assumption was that LTP occurs in the hippocampus as a consequence of learning, but there had never been conclusive evidence that learning was directly tied to LTP.

The problems were threefold.

Many learning tasks require more than one repetition of an event, and slight differences in anima
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
24-Aug-2006


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