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Forgotten but not gone -- how the brain takes care of things
Date:11/17/2008

This release is available in German.

Thanks to our ability to learn and to remember, we can perform tasks that other living things can not even dream of. However, we are only just beginning to get the gist of what really goes on in the brain when it learns or forgets something. What we do know is that changes in the contacts between nerve cells play an important role. But can these structural changes account for that well-known phenomenon that it is much easier to re-learn something that was forgotten than to learn something completely new? Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology have been able to show that new cell contacts established during a learning process stay put, even when they are no longer required. The reactivation of this temporarily inactivated "stock of contacts" enables a faster learning of things forgotten. (Nature, November 12, 2008).

While an insect still flings itself against the window-pane after dozens of unsuccessful attempts to gain its freedom, our brain is able to learn very complex associations and sequences of movement. This not only helps us to avoid accidents like walking into glass doors, but also enables us to acquire such diverse skills as riding a bicycle, skiing, speaking different languages or playing an instrument. Although a young brain learns more easily, we retain our ability to learn up to an advanced age. For a long time, scientists have been trying to ascertain exactly what happens in the brain while we learn or forget.

Flexible connections

To learn something, in other words, to successfully process new information, nerve cells make new connections with each other. When faced with an unprecedented piece of information, for which no processing pathway yet exists, filigree appendages begin to grow from the activated nerve cell towards its neighbours. Whenev
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Contact: Dr. Mark Huebener
mark@neuro.mpg.de
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Source:Eurekalert  

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