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VBCN - May 2015 Volume 2, No 1 - In the Literature

Lightning bolt images in the dendrites of brain cells may reveal how the brain sorts, stores, and interprets information during learning, according to researchers at New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center (Cichon J, Gan WB. Nature. 2015;520: 180-185).

Lead author Joseph Cichon, MS, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at NYU Langone Medical Center, and his colleagues captured images of the underlying biologic activity within brain cells and dendrites of mice. Neuronal activity in dendritic nerve branches was tracked as the mice learned motor tasks, such as how to run forward and backward on a treadmill. These newly learned motor tasks appeared to induce completely separate lightning bolt patterns in the dendrites, which were the visual manifestation of calcium ion spikes. These spikes triggered chainlike reactions that were tied to the strengthening or weakening of connections between neurons––the hallmarks of learning new information.

The study also identified a unique type of brain cell that controlled the location of these spikes. When these cells were turned off, the lightning bolt patterns were disrupted. As a result, the animals appeared to lose the information they had just learned.

Senior researcher Wen-Biao Gan, PhD, said in a press release, “We believe our study provides important insights into how the brain deals with vast amounts of information continuously as the brain learns new tasks….We have long wondered how the brain can store new information continuously throughout life without disrupting previously acquired memories. We now know that the generation of calcium spikes in separate branches of nerve cells is critical for the brain to encode and store large quantities of information without interfering with each other.”

These discoveries could have impor­tant implications for explaining the underlying neural circuit problems in disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The investigators’ next steps will be to determine if the calcium ion spikes are malfunctioning in animal models of brain disorders.

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Last modified: June 1, 2015
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