Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University have imaged the hidden biological process that takes place inside the brain during learning.
When we learn, the connections between neurons—or nerve cells—in the brain, which are related to the specific task in hand, strengthen and become larger. These connections can also be strengthened in the same way by addictions and other neurological diseases.
It is this biological process that the scientists were able to image at the cellular level using an extremely high-resolution microscopic technique, revealing structural changes that have never been seen before.
The findings, which are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, could have important implications for our understanding of how both normal learning and “maladaptive learning” behaviors—like those seen in neurological disorders—may occur, according to Matthew Dalva, a neuroscientist from the Synaptic Biology Center at Jefferson and lead author of the study.
Using their microscope, the Jefferson team zoomed right to the scale of individual cells in order to observe the connecting points between neurons—known as synapses—in real time. These synapses are where information is passed from one neuron to another via chemical messengers, enabling learning and other brain functions.
Not only did the team witness the strengthening of connections during the learning process—which has been observed by scientists before—they also found that these chemical messengers appear to be organized in clumps, or “nanomodules” which dance around and multiply when stimulated by learning-like signals. This behavior was surprising, Dalva said.
The results of the new research could have implications for our understanding of neurological disorders, according to Dalva.
“Fundamentally [the findings] help us understand how synapses are organized in a way that we hadn’t before,” he told Newsweek. “Many diseases are diseases of the synapse, particularly ones that we understand poorly like autism and Alzheimer’s disease, so the more we can know about how synapses work, I think the better chance we have of figuring out ways to attack these diseases or treat them that we didn’t know before.”
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