The image shows a neuron with a tree trunk-like dendrite. Each triangular shape touching the dendrite represents a synapse, where inputs from other neurons, called spikes, arrive (the squiggly shapes). Synapses that are further away on the dendritic tree from the cell body require a higher spike frequency (spikes that come closer together in time) and spikes that arrive with perfect timing to generate maximal learning.(Credit: Image courtesy of University of California – Los Angeles)
Contrary to what was previously assumed, Mehta and Kumar found that when it comes to stimulating synapses with naturally occurring spike patterns, stimulating the neurons at the highest frequencies was not the best way to increase synaptic strength.
When, for example, a synapse was stimulated with just 10 spikes at a frequency of 30 spikes per second, it induced a far greater increase in strength than stimulating that synapse with 10 spikes at 100 times per second.
“The expectation, based on previous studies, was that if you drove the synapse at a higher frequency, the effect on synaptic strengthening, or learning, would be at least as good as, if not better than, the naturally occurring lower frequency,” Mehta said. “To our surprise, we found that beyond the optimal frequency, synaptic strengthening actually declined as the frequencies got higher.”
The knowledge that a synapse has a preferred frequency for maximal learning led the researchers to compare optimal frequencies based on the location of the synapse on a neuron. Neurons are shaped like trees, with the nucleus being the base of the tree, the dendrites resembling the extensive branches and the synapses resembling the leaves on those branches.
When Mehta and Kumar compared synaptic learning based on where synapses were located on the dendritic branches, what they found was significant: The optimal frequency for inducing synaptic learning changed depending on where the synapse was located. The farther the synapse was from the neuron’s cell body, the higher its optimal frequency.
“Incredibly, when it comes to learning, the neuron behaves like a giant antenna, with different branches of dendrites tuned to different frequencies for maximal learning,” Mehta said.
The researchers found that not only does each synapse have a preferred frequency for achieving optimal learning, but for the best effect, the frequency needs to be perfectly rhythmic — timed at exact intervals. Even at the optimal frequency, if the rhythm was thrown off, synaptic learning was substantially diminished.
Their research also showed that once a synapse learns, its optimal frequency changes. In other words, if the optimal frequency for a naïve synapse — one that has not learned anything yet — was, say, 30 spikes per second, after learning, that very same synapse would learn optimally at a lower frequency, say 24 spikes per second. Thus, learning itself changes the optimal frequency for a synapse.
This learning-induced “detuning” process has important implications for treating disorders related to forgetting, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the researchers said.
Although much more research is needed, the findings raise the possibility that drugs could be developed to “retune” the brain rhythms of people with learning or memory disorders, or that many more of us could become Einstein or Mozart if the optimal brain rhythm was delivered to each synapse.
“We already know there are drugs and electrical stimuli that can alter brain rhythms,” Mehta said. “Our findings suggest that we can use these tools to deliver the optimal brain rhythm to targeted connections to enhance learning.”
Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Whitehall Foundation, and the W.M. Keck Foundation.
Source: University of California – Los Angeles
Published on 4th October 2011