Memories are presumably formed by experience-induced changes in the operating characteristics of single cells, local circuits, and large-scale systems. Little is known directly about how these changes occur in the human brain. A great deal is known about some memory-related phenomena at cellular levels in in vitro and invertebrate models, such as the marine snail Aplysia. These findings offer suggestions about the cellular bases of human memories.
Aplysia withdraw their gills when stimulated with a brief jet of seawater. Repeated stimulation, however, leads to habituation such that the gills are no longer withdrawn. Habituation has been linked to decreasing presynaptic transmitter release. In other conditions, repeated stimulation can lead to sensitization. For example, a strong noxious stimulation, such as an electrical shock, can intensify a subsequent withdrawal response to a touch. Sensitization involves an increase of transmitter release from a facilitating interneuron. y
Long-term, but not short-term, memory processes require messenger RNA and protein synthesis.y These findings indicate that there are genes and proteins that guide long-term memories that are not invoked in short-term memories. These long-term changes may involve structural changes in presynaptic neurons. Long-term habituation may involve a pruning of presynaptic terminals, whereas sensitization may involve a proliferation of presynaptic terminals. y A strong candidate for a cellular basis of mammalian learning is long-term potentiation (LTP). A neuron becomes potentiated (i.e., increasingly responsive to new input of the same type) for minutes, days, or weeks when it is bombarded with brief but rapid series of stimulations. The fact that simultaneous stimulation of different synapses,
or cooperativity, is required for LTP makes it a promising mechanism for associative learning at the level of a single cell. Cooperativity and other sources of evidence indicate that the postsynaptic neuron triggers LTP. LTP-induced changes in postsynaptic neurons are known to increase the concentration of calcium in dendrites, which activates a cascade of protein phosphorylation leading to changes in synaptic properties. LTP has been extensively studied in hippocampal synapses, in which NMDA glutamate receptors are of critical importance for the establishment, but not the maintenance, of LTP. There is evidence of similar mechanisms in the amygdala, cerebellum, and cerebral cortex. LTP in different brain regions exhibits different rates of development and stability, suggesting the involvement of multiple cellular mechanisms.
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