Memory manipulation has become one of the most hotly pursued topics in neuroscience. After all, much or of who are is based on what we’ve learned, including memories that we can consciously recall as well as acquired desires and habits that can lead to problems like addiction. In rodents, we’ve known for decades that damage to the hippocampus can erase recently-formed memories. Studies of reconsolidation have shown us that when a memory is retrieved it becomes labile and allows for new information to be added, thereby creating an updated version. More recently we (humans) have been able to identify the neurons involved in memory formation and show that killing them, and only them, results in memory erasure. Bringing us even closer to the stuff of movies, studies by Garner et al. in Science and Liu et al. in Nature have now artificially controlled memory formation and recall. We’re essentially talking about reactivating memory by pushing a button. Yes – you can say “dude, whoah” now. Read the rest of this entry »
Based on a true story – how progress is made in the field of adult neurogenesis*
- A group of scientists reduce neurogenesis and report a memory deficit.
- A second group repeats the experiment, with only a few minor differences in protocol, and fails to find a memory deficit.
- A third group, using the same species as the first group but a protocol more similar to the second group, replicates the original finding but only when the experiment is performed on Wednesdays.
- Faith is restored.
- Five groups report no such neurogenesis-dependent memory deficit.
- It is reported that developmental exposure to strontium reduces adult neurogenesis by 40% AND produces the much sought after memory deficit. In a technical tour de force follow-up experiment, artisanal cheeses restore neurogenesis and reverse the memory deficits. Causation is established.
- Everyone proclaims the role of neurogenesis in memory and is totally confused at the same time.
- Someone systematically examines all of the variables in the memory test to determine whether or not the whole thing is a hoax and they should just change careers**.
- We have never gotten this far.
Even at level 8, the neurogenesis-fear conditioning story was one of the more convincing arguments of new neuron functionality. With this study by Drew et al. we may soon be jumping for joy as we appear to be graduating to level 9.
The contribution of adult neurogenesis to contextual fear conditioning was greatest when mice were only given a brief training experience – mice lacking adult neurogenesis showed reduced fear of a context where they previously received a single footshock during a brief (3 min) exploration session. With longer exposures to the context, or additional footshocks, neurogenesis-deficient mice showed normal memory. This finding could be explained by the fact that young neurons have a lower threshold for synaptic plasticity, allowing them to encode fleeting experiences that would be forgotten if left to mature neurons.
So, brief training protocols may now likely be my first choice, at least when using mice. In fact, the only times I have observed contextual fear memory deficits in mice has been after brief training protocols almost identical to those used by Drew et al. So we just might have taken a big step forward. If not, check back in 5 years for my revised “How progress is made” list.
*or any other field for that matter
**this is not entirely a joke because, in this case, it both 1) appears to not be a hoax, and 2) marks the launch of the next phase of Michael Drew’s career (congrats)
Drew MR, Denny CA, & Hen R (2010). Arrest of adult hippocampal neurogenesis in mice impairs single- but not multiple-trial contextual fear conditioning. Behavioral neuroscience, 124 (4), 446-54 PMID: 20695644
Most studies of adult neurogenesis are concerned with neuronal age. Or at least they should be. This is because new neurons develop from a stage where they have no excitatory synapses to one where they have many. If we assume the traditional view that information is stored at excitatory synaptic connections, then young neurons are initially useless and only become physiologically and behaviorally meaningful when they have matured to a point where they can relay and process information. It is therefore critical that the developmental timecourse of new neurons be mapped out, so we know when new neurons become functionally relevant, or whether they might even have different functions at different ages.
Below are what I hope to be comprehensive visual collages of all published timecourse experiments, where a certain property of new neurons is examined at multiple (≥ 3) different ages. They are grouped by studies of: 1) cell survival, 2) marker expression, 3) functionality, and 4) miscellaneous studies that do not quite fit into the first 3 categories. I’ve ordered the data roughly chronologically and have included the first author’s name and publication year so you can read deeper, if needed. Indeed, if you know these studies already, a brief look at the graphs will bring back the take home message. However, since the data is stripped of text, if the studies are unfamiliar, you’ll have to go to the original source to figure out what the heck they mean (use Pubmed to at least obtain abstracts for the original studies if I didn’t provide a direct link).
Personally, I like timecourse studies for the same reason I like to have all my music albums or books visible at the same time: at a single glance they provide a lot of information – each individual stage of maturation can be interpreted within a bigger picture. The result of these many hours of work will either be a) that the purpose of adult neurogenesis will become immediately clear, or b) that we’ll all have some fancy collages to pin on our bulletin boards and look intelligent.
The survival timecourse
New neurons are born and then many die. The survival timecourse answers the questions: How many new neurons are born? Where are they born and where do they end up, anatomically? How many of them survive and can their survival be altered? Survival timecourses are typically performed by injecting animals with a mitotic marker that will label new neurons as they’re being born, e.g. ³H-thymidine (old school), BrdU (tried and true – example), or a GFP-expressing retrovirus (new school). At a later date one can then detect these birthdated new neurons and count them, see where they’re located etc.
I’ve always enjoyed making lists. As a kid I can remember writing lists of rhyming words, lists of all the Ocean Pacific clothes I owned, lists of all the people I knew. Many years later, I hope I’ve now made a list that is actually useful.
Adult neurogenesis is now undisputed. Pretty much on a weekly basis there is a new paper that examines both levels of adult hippocampal neurogenesis and behavior, attempting to draw a functional connection. The good news is that the argument for a behavioral function for adult neurogenesis continues to get stronger. The bad news is that there’s a massive pileup of data, and it’s becoming hard to filter through the relevant studies – first you have to find them amongst the 1000+ studies of adult neurogenesis. Then you have to read them. What behaviors are examined? Is there an effect of reducing or enhancing neurogenesis? What method is used to manipulate neurogenesis? What do other studies find that performed a similar analysis? Read the rest of this entry »
Cell Nov. 13, 2009: Adult Neurogenesis Modulates the Hippocampus-Dependent Period of Associative Fear MemoryMichael Drew and Jason Snyder | 12/22/2009
It’s great to see this paper finally in print. At SFN 2008 the authors had a poster that generated a lot of excitement, at least in our circles. And the poster was quite a sight: there was such a profusion of data that the poster poured off the easel, nearly reaching the floor. With 27 (!) supplemental figures in the final article, one has to wonder if this is the final straw that led to this article.
The authors use an ingenious approach to address an idea that has been floating around for a while: that adult neurogenesis regulates memory turnover in the hippocampus. Read the rest of this entry »