A new study has identified an important molecular change which takes place in the brain when we learn and remember (Brigidi et al., 2014).
Learning changes the way a fatty acid in the brain attaches to a protein called delta-catenin.
This change is essential in adjusting the connectivity between brain cells, which enables us to learn.
One of the study’s authors, Shernaz Bamji, explained:
“More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases.”
The results come from the study of an animal model.
They found that after learning about new environments, the levels of modified delta-catenin were almost doubled.
Delta-catenin has been previously identified as playing an important role in memory, but this is the first study to show the molecular mechanism at work.
The study’s lead author, Stefano Brigidi, said:
“Brain activity can change both the structure of this protein, as well as its function. When we introduced a mutation that blocked the biochemical modification that occurs in healthy subjects, we abolished the structural changes in brain’s cells that are known to be important for memory formation.”
The findings may also shed light on why people with some mental disabilities find it hard to learn.
For example, people with a rare genetic disorder called Cri-du-chat syndrome–named after the distinctive cry of affected infants–have a gene deletion which disrupts delta-catenin.
There have also been links made between delta-catenin and the severe mental disorder schizophrenia.
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Image credit: MR McGill