The researchers determined this by genetically engineering a strain of mice with traceable neurons in the brain's fear center, called the amygdala. Inserted genes caused activated neurons to glow red when the animals learned to fear situations where they received shocks, in a process known as fear conditioning -- and to glow green when the memory was later retrieved. The researchers then chemically prevented further expression of those neurons, so that resulting neural and behavioral changes could be confidently attributed to that learning experience at a later time. The study revealed which circuits and neurons were involved in the specific learning experience.
In the new study, Mayford and Matsuo adapted this approach to discover how fear learning works at a deeper level -- inside neurons of the brain's memory hub, called the hippocampus.
Evidence suggested that proteins called AMPA receptors strengthen memories by becoming part of the synapses encoding them. To identify these synapses, the researchers genetically engineered a strain of mice to express AMPA receptors traceable by a green glow. After fear conditioning had triggered new AMPA receptors deep in the neuron's nucleus, they chemically suppressed any further expression of the proteins. This allowed time for the receptors to migrate to their appointed synapses. Hours later, green fluorescence revealed the fate of the specific AMPA receptors born in response to the learning.
As expected, the newly synthesized AMPA receptors had traveled and become part of only certain hippocampus synapses -- presumably the ones holding the memory. Synaptic connections are made onto small nubs on the neuron called spines. These spines come in three different shapes called thin, stubby and mushroom. While little was known about the function of these dif
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NIH/National Institute of Mental Health