Connection Clusters


As our brains learn something, our neurons form new connections in clustered groups, says a new study.

Some clusters are juicier than others.

In other words, synapses – connections between neurons – are much more likely to form near other brand-new synapses than they are to emerge near older ones.

As our neuroscience friends like to say: “Cells that fire together wire together” – and that process of rewiring never stops. From before you were born right up until this moment, the synaptic pathways in your brain have been transforming, hooking up new electrochemical connections and trimming away the ones that aren’t needed. Even when you’re sound asleep, your brain’s still burning the midnight oil, looking for ever-sleeker ways to do its many jobs.

I like to imagine that this happens to the sound of a really pumped-up drumbeat, as my brain says things like, “We can rebuild this pathway – we have the technology! We can make it better! Faster! Stronger!”

What’s even more amazing is how delicate these adjustments can be. We’re not just talking about growing dendrites here – we’re talking about dendritic spines, the tiny knobs that branch off from dendrites and bloom into postsynaptic densities – molecular interfaces that allow one neuron to receive information from its neighbors.

Back in 2005, a team led by Yi Zuo at the University of California Santa Cruz found that as a mouse learns a new task, thousands of fresh dendritic spines blossom from the dendrites of neurons in the motor cortex (an area of the brain that helps control movement). In short, they actually observed neurons learning to communicate better.

And now Zuo’s back with another hit, the journal Nature reports. This time, Zuo and her team have shown that those new dendritic spines aren’t just popping up at random – they grow in bunches:

A third of new dendritic spines (postsynaptic structures of most excitatory synapses) formed during the acquisition phase of learning emerge in clusters, and that most such clusters are neighbouring spine pairs.

The team discovered this by studying fluorescent mouse neurons under a microscope (Oh, did you know there are mice with glowing neurons? Because there are mice with glowing neurons.). As in Zuo’s earlier study, they focused on neurons in the motor cortex:

We followed apical dendrites of layer 5 pyramidal neurons in the motor cortex while mice practised novel forelimb skills.

But as it turned out, their discovery about clustered spines was just the tip of the iceberg – the researchers also found that when a second dendritic spine formed close to one that was already there, the first spine grew larger, strengthening the connection even more. And they learned that clustered spines were much more likely to persist than non-clustered ones were, which just goes to show the importance of a solid support network. And finally, they found that the new spines don’t form when just any signal passes through – new connections only blossom when a brain is learning through repetition.

Can you imagine how many new dendritic spines were bursting to life in the researchers‘ brains as they learned all this? And what about in your brain, right now?

It’s kinda strange to think about this stuff, I know – even stranger is the realization that your brain isn’t so much an object as it is a process – a constantly evolving system of interconnections. You could say that instead of human beings, we’re really human becomings – and thanks to your adaptable neurons, each moment is a new opportunity to decide who – or what – you’d like to become.

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