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Quick thinking? It's all down to timing
New insights into neuronal behavior in the brain may pave way to identifying learning disabilities

Remember hearing people being called slow learners by teachers and parents? That description of someone who takes a wee bit longer to process information, now has a scientific basis for its existence.

Scientists from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine have found that the rapidity with which a person is able to grasp, process, understand, store and use information comes down to the speed and timing with which the neurons in the brain fire off.

The closer the gap between the firing of one neuron and the next, the greater the speed with which the information is received, stored and acted upon.

So, when it comes to quick thinking, timing makes all the difference.

The capacity to adapt and learn with experience is one of the most intriguing features of the human brain. This fascinating organ is composed of billions of neurons, which are in turn connected to many other cells. The physical connections between neurons, called synapses, are where neurons communicate with each other.

Synapses are remarkably plastic – these connections can strengthen or weaken dynamically in response to incoming information. Such changes in the efficacy of the synapses underlie learning and the formation of memory in the brain.

The NUS team found that neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region critical for the formation of memory, use a surprisingly wide variety of learning mechanisms. One such form of learning, termed “spike-timing-dependent plasticity (STDP)”, depends on the timing of each pair of electrical spikes (electrical activity used to transmit information within neurons) in the pre-synaptic neuron and the post-synaptic neuron (Figure 1).

An electrical spike in the presynaptic neuron stimulates the neuron to release neurotransmitters, which travel across the synapse to activate the postsynaptic neuron, where the information is converted back into an electrical spike. When the pre- and postsynaptic neurons are active at the same time (less than 30 milliseconds apart), the connections between them are strengthened.

However, when the presynaptic neuron fires earlier by 30 milliseconds or more, or when the postsynaptic neuron fires earlier by more than 10 milliseconds, the connections are strengthened to a lesser degree.

In addition, the researchers demonstrated that when the pre- and postsynaptic spikes occur at the same time, the increase in synaptic strength persists for several hours, and the synapse can even strengthen weak information so that it gets stored. The effect was specific, working only to strengthen this synapse, not to enhance changes in other synapses. This study reveals how important the split-second timing in neuronal activity is in shaping information processing in the brain.

The researchers could detect the longer-term effects of the inter-spike timing because they studied the synaptic changes for a longer duration (4 hours) than the durations employed in previous studies, which were typically less than 1.5 hours.

“Unfortunately, the ability for the brain to change in response to such precise timing of information flow may be lacking in brains affected by Alzheimer’s Disease as the hippocampus is particularly damaged in this common cause of dementia,” said Dr Christopher Chen, senior consultant neurologist, National University Hospital and director of the Memory Aging and Cognition Centre, National University Health System.

A comprehensive understanding of the factors that shape neural connections is critical for our understanding of information processing in the brain. It also helps us to understand how memories are formed. Furthermore, a firm grasp of these neural computational rules can help guide the building of artificial intelligence technology, e.g. deep neural networks, which are inspired by the brain’s learning mechanisms.

Based on this improved understanding of how normal brains compute information and learn, researchers can identify mechanisms for further study that may be involved in conditions like schizophrenia, depression, sleep loss, stroke, chronic pain, learning disability, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Click here for the complete issue.

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APBN Editorial Calendar 2019
January:
Taiwan Medical tourism
February:
Marijuana as medicine — Legal marijuana will open up scientific research
March:
Driven by curiosity
April:
Career developments for researchers
May:
What's cracking — Antibodies in ostrich eggs
June:
Clinical trials — What's in a name?
July:
Traditional Chinese medicine in modern healthcare — Integrating both worlds
August:
Digitalization vs Digitization — Exploring Emerging Trends in Healthcare
September:
Healthy Ageing — How Science is chipping in
October:
Disruptive Urban Farming — Microbes, Plasmids, and Recycling
November:
Evaluating cost effectiveness of genomic profiling
December:
Precision Medicine for Brain Tumours
Editorial calendar is subjected to changes.
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