Neuroplasticity (the ability of neurons to change structure and function in response to experiences) can be deactivated and activated by the cells surrounding neurons in the brain. according to a new study on fruit flies.
The idea behind the study
As the larvae of midges age, their neurons go from a highly adaptable state to a stable state: they lose the ability to change.
During this process, the supporting cells in the brain, called astrocytes, envelop the parts of neurons that send and receive electrical information. When the team removed the astrocytes, the neurons in the fruit fly larvae remained flexible longer, suggesting that somehow astrocytes suppress the ability of neurons to change.
The researchers also discovered two specific proteins that regulate neuroplasticity.
Because it is important
The human brain is made up of billions of neurons that form complex connections between them. Flexibility in these connections is a major driver of learning and memory, but things can go wrong if it's not strictly regulated.
For example, in people, too much plasticity at the wrong time is linked to brain disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease. Conversely, the reduced levels of the two proteins that control neuroplasticity that the researchers identified they are linked to increased susceptibility to autism and schizophrenia.
In fruit flies, the removal of cellular brakes on plasticity permanently compromised their behavior. Although fruit flies are obviously different from humans, their brains work much like the human brain and can offer valuable information.
From disease treatment to enhanced learning
An obvious benefit of discovering the effect of these proteins is the potential for treating some neurological diseases. The flexibility of a neuron is closely linked to learning and memory. For this, in theory, researchers might be able to increase plasticity in a controlled way to improve cognition in adults. This could, for example, make it easier for people to learn a new language or a musical instrument.
The next steps
There is still a lot of work to be done. But the research is a first step towards treatments that use astrocytes to influence how neurons change in the older brain.
If researchers can understand the underlying mechanisms that control neuroplasticity, they will a step closer to developing therapies to treat many neurological disorders.