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Making sense of sensory connections
Date:1/26/2012

PASADENA, Calif.A key feature of human and animal brains is that they are adaptive; they are able to change their structure and function based on input from the environment and on the potential associations, or consequences, of that input. For example, if a person puts his hand in a fire and gets burned, he learns to avoid flames; the simple sight of a flame has acquired a predictive value, which in this case, is repulsive. To learn more about such neural adaptability, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have explored the brains of insects and identified a mechanism by which the connections in their brain change to form new and specific memories of smells.

"Although these results were obtained from experiments with insects, the components of the mechanism exist also in vertebrate, including mammalian, brains which means that what we describe may be of wide applicability," says Stijn Cassenaer, a Broad Senior Research Fellow in brain circuitry at Caltech and lead author of a paperpublished in the journal Nature on January 25that outlined the findings. The study focused on insects because their nervous systems are smaller, and thus likely to reveal their secrets sooner than those of their vertebrate counterparts.

To home in on sensory memories, the researchers concentrated on olfaction, or the sense of smell. When a person encounters a favorite food or the perfume of a loved one, she will typically experience a recall, usually positive, based on the memories evoked by those smells. Such a recallto a smell, sound, taste, or any other sensory stimulusis evidence of "associative" learning, says Gilles Laurent, a former professor of biology at Caltech and senior author of the study, as learning often means assigning a value, such as beneficial or not, to inputs that were until then neutral. The original, neutral stimulus acquires significance as a result of being paired, or associated, with a reinforcing re
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Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges
debwms@caltech.edu
626-395-3227
California Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert  

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