Memory and learning are fundamental mental processes. Learning entails acquiring new knowledge or consolidating already acquired ones while memory is best known by the changes in behavior because of learning. Both of these interrelated neuropsychological phenomena are carried out by thousands of neurobiological substances–proteins and ions–which shuttle to and fro in the synapse [a very tiny space about 1 micron where neurobiological molecules transmit information].
For a long time, these concepts–the interplay of the neurotransmitter substance and nerve endings–have remained rather vague, but recent advances in technology have given scientists an unbridled view of brain cell activity.
Keep track of a million neurons!
To solve the mysteries of how learning and memory occur, this new tool developed by Johns Hopkins scientists may indeed be the game-changer in our understanding of how memory and learning works.
Richard Huganir, Ph.D., [Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience and Psychological and Brain Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University] said that before now, it was science fiction to consider imaging the millions and millions of synapses in the nervous system, but now that fiction has become reality.
To study the operation of synapses, in the past, scientists had to examine a limited number of synapses in select areas of the brain or culture brain cells in a lab and then look out for increments or decrements in the number of specific substances across the synapse. A very crude technique indeed!
If this new tool is finalized, it will usher in another era of neuroimaging as synapses across the entire brain will be visualized.
The scientists tagged all the AMPA glutamate protein in the brain by inserting a special gene–GRIA1–into the DNA sequence of genetically engineered mice, this maneuver tagged all the AMPA glutamate protein green. The choice for AMPA glutamate was because its receptors were ubiquitous and numerous in the brain.
The neurons when excited, secrete AMPA glutamate proteins, which is noticed by a progressively brighter green signal. The green signal gave away the exact location of all the AMPA receptors in the brain.
Afterward, the scientists tried to understand the operation of synapse using the new tool, so they tweaked each mouse whisker and looked out for the synapses that glowed green and the degree of brightness of the green glow. In the end, 600,000 glowing synapses were discovered whose brightness reflected the intensity of AMPA receptor response.
From projections so far, this technology will go a long way to expand our knowledge of how different conditions and disease processes like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, etc affect the operation of a synapse.
Furthermore, scientists after extensive research on mouse learning, and behavior can uncover things that could improve human memory and learning.
According to Huganir, work is already underway to create machine learning tech and artificial intelligence which will create algorithms that automatically detect all of the glowing synapses and their behavior. The implications of this, while slightly scary, are huge