The ability to learn associations between events is critical for survival, but it has not been clear how different pieces of information stored in memory may be linked together by populations of neurons. In a study published April 2nd in Cell Reports, synchronous activation of distinct neuronal ensembles caused mice to artificially associate the memory of a foot shock with the unrelated memory of exploring a safe environment, triggering an increase in fear-related behavior when the mice were re-exposed to the non-threatening environment. The findings suggest that co-activated cell ensembles become wired together to link two distinct memories that were previously stored independently in the brain.
“Memory is the basis of all higher brain functions, including consciousness, and it also plays an important role in psychiatric diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” says senior study author Kaoru Inokuchi of the University of Toyama. “By showing how the brain associates different types of information to generate a qualitatively new memory that leads to enduring changes in behavior, our findings could have important implications for the treatment of these debilitating conditions.”
Recent studies have shown that subpopulations of neurons activated during learning are reactivated during subsequent memory retrieval, and reactivation of a cell ensemble triggers the retrieval of the corresponding memory. Moreover, artificial reactivation of a specific neuronal ensemble corresponding to a pre-stored memory can modify the acquisition of a new memory, thereby generating false or synthetic memories. However, these studies employed a combination of sensory input and artificial stimulation of cell ensembles. Until now, researchers had not linked two distinct memories using completely artificial means.
With that goal in mind, Inokuchi and Noriaki Ohkawa of the University of Toyama used a fear-learning paradigm in mice followed by a technique called optogenetics, which involves genetically modifying specific populations of neurons to express light-sensitive proteins that control neuronal excitability, and then delivering blue light through an optic fiber to activate those cells. In the behavioral paradigm, one group of mice spent six minutes in a cylindrical enclosure while another group explored a cube-shaped enclosure, and 30 minutes later, both groups of mice were placed in the cube-shaped enclosure, where a foot shock was immediately delivered. Two days later, mice that were re-exposed to the cube-shaped enclosure spent more time frozen in fear than mice that were placed back in the cylindrical enclosure.
The researchers then used optogenetics to reactivate the unrelated memories of the safe cylinder-shaped environment and the foot shock. Stimulation of neuronal populations in memory-related brain regions called the hippocampus and amygdala, which were activated during the learning phase, caused mice to spend more time frozen in fear when they were later placed back in the cylindrical enclosure, as compared with stimulation of neurons in either the hippocampus or amygdala, or no stimulation at all.
The findings show that synchronous activation of distinct cell ensembles can generate artificial links between unrelated pieces of information stored in memory, resulting in long-lasting changes in behavior. “By modifying this technique, we will next attempt to artificially dissociate memories that are physiologically connected,” Inokuchi says. “This may contribute to the development of new treatments for psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, whose main symptoms arise from unnecessary associations between unrelated memories.”
More information: Cell Reports, Ohkawa et al.: “Artificial Association of Pre-Stored Information to Generate a Qualitatively New Memory” www.cell.com/cell-reports/abst… 2211-1247(15)00270-3
Animal study highlights potential new target for treating anxiety disorders
Increasing acidity in the brain’s emotional control center reduces anxiety, according to an animal study published February 26 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings suggest a new mechanism for the body’s control of fear and anxiety, and point to a new target for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders, which are characterized by an inability to control feelings of fear and uncertainty, are the most prevalent group of psychiatric diseases. At the cellular level, these disorders are associated with heightened activity in the basolateral amygdala (BLA), which is known to play a central role in emotional behavior.
Many cells in the BLA possess acid-sensing ion channels called ASIC1a, which respond to pH changes in the environment outside of the cell. Maria Braga, DDS, PhD, and colleagues at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, found that activating ASIC1a decreased the activity of nearby cells and reduced anxiety-like behavior in animals. These findings add to previous evidence implicating the role of ASIC1a in anxiety.
“These findings suggest that activating these channels, specifically in fear-related areas such as the amygdala, may be a key to regulating anxiety,” explained Anantha Shekhar, MD, PhD, who studies panic disorders at Indiana University and was not involved in this study. “Developing specific drugs that can stimulate these channels could provide a new way to treat anxiety and fear disorders such a post-traumatic stress and panic disorders.”
To determine the effect ASIC1a activation has on neighboring cells, Braga’s group bathed BLA cells in an acidic solution in the laboratory and measured the signals sent to nearby cells. Lowering the pH of the solution decreased the activity of cells in the BLA.
Activating ASIC1a also affected animal behavior. When the researchers administered a drug that blocks ASIC1a directly into the BLA of rats, the rats displayed more anxiety-like behavior than animals that did not receive the drug. In contrast, when rats received a drug designed to increase the activity of ASIC1a channels in the BLA, the animals displayed less anxiety-like behavior.
“Our study emphasizes the importance of identifying and elucidating mechanisms involved in the regulation of brain function for the development of more efficacious therapies for treating psychiatric and neurological illnesses,” Braga said. While the findings suggest that drugs targeting ASICs may one day lead to novel therapies for anxiety disorders, Braga noted that “more research is needed to understand the roles that ASIC1a channels play in the brain.”
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The Reticular Formation
It’s a ‘diffuse net’ which is formed by nerve cells and fibers. It extends from the neuroaxis spinal cord through medulla, pons, midbrain, subthalamus, hypothalamus and thalamus (spinal cord is relayed superiorly to the cerebral cortex).
Many afferent and efferent pathways project in and out of the RF from most parts of the CNS. The main pathways through the RF is poorly defined and difficult to trace using silver stains. Reticular formation can be divided into three columns : median, medial and lateral columns.
Functions of the Reticular formation
1. Control of skeletal muscles:
- RF modulates muscle tone and reflex activities (via reticulospinal and reticulo bulbar tracts). It is important in controlling muscles of facial expression when associated with emotions.
2. Control somatic and visceral sensation (influence can be excitatory or inhibitory)
3. Control of autonomic nervous system
4. Control of endocrine nervous system (hypothalamus and the pituitary)
5. Influence on the biological clock (rhythm)
6. The reticular activating system (arousal and level of consciousness are controlled by the RF)
When a person smiles for a joke, the motor control is provided by the RF on both side of the brain. The fibers from RF is separated from corticobulbar pathway (supply for facial muscles). If a patient suffers a stroke that involves corticobulbar fibers, he or she has facial paralysis on the lower part of the face, but is still able to smile symmetrically.
The Limbic System
|Limbic structures||Functions of the limbic system|
||1. Influence the emotional behavior:a. Reaction to fear and angerb. Emotions associated with sexual behavior
2. Hippocampus is involved in converting short term memory to long term memory (If the hippocampus is damaged, patient is unable to store long term memory – Anterograde amnesia)
The Basal Ganglia and their connections
Connections of the Basal Ganglia
Yellow arrow : Pallidofugal fibers
Caudate nucleus and the Putamen: main sites of receiving inputs
Globus pallidus: main site from which output leaves
Afferent and Efferent fibers
|Connections of the caudate nucleus and Putamen||Connections of the Globus pallidus|
|CS: CorticostriateTS: Thalamostriate
BS: Brainstem striatal fibers
SN: Striatonigral fibers
Functions of the Basal Nuclei
Basal Nuclei controls muscular movements by influencing the cerebral cortex (it doesn’t have direct control through descending pathways to the brainstem and spinal cord). It helps to prepare for the movements (enables the trunk and limbs to be placed in appropriate positions before discrete movements of the hands and feet).