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article imageNew clues about learning and neurons

By Tim Sandle     Oct 18, 2014 in Science
To learn how to run on a wheel with unevenly spaced rungs, mice must be able to make new myelin, the fatty sheaths that insulate neuronal axons. This finding changes some perceptions on how animals learn.
Traditionally it has been thought that learning is directly related to the neurons in the brain, and that chemical and electrical processes help to store the necessary memories that allow tasks to be repeated with accuracy. A new research finding suggests that myelin is produced by non-neuronal glial cells called oligodendrocytes. This would indicate that neurons are not the only important cell types when it comes to learning.
Myelin is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. The main purpose of a myelin layer (or sheath) is to increase the speed at which electric impulses move along a neuron.
Furthermore, as myelin is produced by non-neuronal glial cells called oligodendrocytes, which myelinate axons by extending thin processes of their cell membranes to wrap around them, the study possibly overturns the long-standing assumption that learning results exclusively from changes to neuronal anatomy or function.
The findings were based on magnetic resonance imaging experiments which linked associated changes in the brain’s white matter with learning. This led to further studies where scientists used the genetic system in mice to selectively excise part of a gene called myelin regulatory factor (Myrf. Switching this gene, which helps to control myelin, on and off, appeared to influence the ability of mice to learn.
Commenting on the study in communication with The Scientist, Robin Franklin, professor at the University of Cambridge stated: "What this paper really does in a very compelling and elegant way is show that the glial cells . . . really perform much more important tasks than had hitherto been assigned to them. his paper is a very significant step in a mounting body of work that shows that in fact the glial cells are not simply cells for neurons; they have, in their own right, fundamentally important roles in how the brain works."
The research has been published in the journal Science. The paper is titled "Motor skill learning requires active central myelination."
More about Learning, Neurons, Brain, myelin
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