09:43:37am | 09-Nov-2018 | 980 | 79

How a key protein boosts memory, learning in the adult brain

Published Thursday 8 November 2018

By Catharine Paddock PhD

Fact checked by Jasmin Collier


A protein that plays a key role in early neural development is also essential for learning and memory in the adult brain.

brain illustration

A protein called netrin may boost learning and memory by strengthening neural connections in the adult brain.

The protein, called netrin, strengthens connections between brain cells.

This is according to recent research led by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro), a teaching and research institute of McGill University in Canada.

Scientists already knew that netrin is essential for the development of the embryonic and infant brain, where it helps make connections between brain cells, or neurons.

The recent research reveals that the protein also strengthens those neural connections, or synapses, in the adult brain's hippocampus, an area that is involved in memory and learning.

The journal Cell Reports recently published a paper on the study, which the team conducted on cells from developing and adult rat brains.

"It was a mystery," comments senior study author Dr. Timothy E. Kennedy, who runs a research laboratory at The Neuro, "why neurons would continue making netrin in the adult brain after all the connections had already been made in infancy."

Molecule key for synapse strengthening

According to Dr. Kennedy, the scientists saw that a neuron releases netrin when it becomes active. The protein strengthens the connection to a neighboring neuron by signaling the two neurons to "make the synapse stronger."

The recent study follows a long train of work that started nearly 7 decades ago when Donald Hebb, a psychology professor at McGill University, proposed his ideas of how the brain learns and makes memories.

What later acquired the title Hebbian Theory, his ideas aimed to explain how neural circuits develop as a result of experience.