The research, published online Oct. 23 and in the November issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows that ion channels distributed in the dendritic membrane change during a simulated learning task and that this requires the rapid production of new proteins.
"Our new work strongly supports the idea that learning involves changes in dendrites," says Dr. Daniel Johnston, director of the Center for Learning and Memory and professor in the Institute for Neuroscience.
The finding could also lead to advances in understanding conditions like epilepsy and age-related memory loss and could point to potential treatment opportunities for such conditions in the future.
Dendrites--the thin branch-like extensions of a neuron cell--receive many inputs from other neurons that transmit information through contact points called synapses. Much attention has been focused on the role that changes at synapses play in learning. They change in ways that make it easier for connected neurons to pass information.
Johnston and his colleagues show that learning and memory are likely to not only involve changes at synapses, but also in dendrites. They found that h-channels, which are distributed throughout the dendrite membrane and allow the passage of potassium and sodium ions into and out of the neuron, are altered during learning.
"The h-channels undergo plasticity, not near the synapse but probably throughout the dendritic tree," says Johnston.
To record the changes during learning, cells from the rat hippocampus (an important area of the brain for short-term memory) were electrically stimulated using a high frequency pattern called theta-bursts. Theta-bursts
Contact: Dan Johnston
University of Texas at Austin