Dead Sea 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Newswise — Efforts to help people with learning impairments are being aided by a
species of sea snail known as Aplysia californica. The mollusk, which is used by
researchers to study the brain, has much in common with other species including
humans. Research involving the snail has contributed to the understanding of
learning and memory.
At The University of Texas Health Science Center at
Houston (UTHealth), neuroscientists used this animal model to test an innovative
learning strategy designed to help improve the brain’s memory and the results
were encouraging. It could ultimately benefit people who have impairments
resulting from aging, stroke, traumatic brain injury or congenital cognitive
The proof-of-principle study was published on the Nature
website on Dec. 25. The next steps in the research may involve
tests in other animal models and eventually humans.
The strategy was used
to identify times when the brain was primed for learning, which in turn
facilitated the scheduling of learning sessions during these peak periods. The
result was a significant increase in memory.
“We found that memory could
be enhanced appreciably,” said John H. “Jack” Byrne, Ph.D., senior author and
chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UTHealth Medical
Building on earlier research that identified proteins linked to
memory, the UTHealth investigators created a mathematical model that tells
researchers when the timing of the activity of these proteins is aligned for the
best learning experience.
Right now, the scheduling of learning sessions
is based on trial and error and is somewhat arbitrary. If the model proves
effective in follow-up studies, it could be used to identify those periods when
learning potential is highest.
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“When you give a training session, you are
starting several different chemical reactions. If you give another session, you
get additional effects. The idea is to get the sessions in sync,” Byrne said.
“We have developed a way to adjust the training sessions so they are tuned to
the dynamics of the biochemical processes.”
Two groups of snails received
five learning sessions. One group received learning sessions at irregular
intervals as predicted by a mathematical model. Another group received training
sessions in regular 20-minute intervals.
Five days after the learning
sessions were completed, a significant increase in memory was detected in the
group that was trained with a schedule predicted by a computer. But, no increase
was detected in the group with the regular 20-minute intervals.
computer sorted through 10,000 different permutations in order to determine a
schedule that would enhance memory.
To confirm their findings,
researchers analyzed nerve cells in the brain of snails and found greater
activity in the ones receiving the enhanced training schedule, said Byrne, the
June and Virgil Waggoner Chair of Neurobiology and Anatomy at
“This study shows the feasibility of using computational
methods to assist in the design of training schedules that enhance memory,”
Byrne said.This article was first published at www.newswise.com
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