New skills spur new brain cell links

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: November 16th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Want to keep the juice flowing through your cerebral circuits?

Try learning a new skill.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have discovered that neurons in the brains of mice sprout robust new connections when they adjust to new learning experiences.

Of course, there are vast differences between mice and human brains.

But if you are looking for some extra incentive to take up the violin or if you’ve still not made the leap to the Internet, consider that the mere act of trying may physically strengthen your brain.

Scientists selectively trimmed the whiskers of mice, cutting some and leaving others. Mice get a great deal of information about their environment from their whiskers, so the grooming actually changed their world view.

These mice were genetically altered to produce a green fluorescent protein in specific neurons in the region of the brain that is known to adapt to new experiences. Using special microscopes, researchers were able to actually view the changes in the brain-cell connections.

Researchers were most excited to find that after this long-term change in experience, the newly generated circuitry was robust and long-lasting.

Next, scientists will study how the animals’ brain circuitry rewires as the trimmed whiskers grow back. The process might shed light on what happens when people overcome disabilities.

Ultimately, scientist says the discovery provides some insight into the learning process. It seems learning how to do something, like playing the piano or reading Braille, appears to have more benefits than simply memorizing facts.