New knowledge about human brain's plasticity

Posted on November 7, 2014

The brain's plasticity and its adaptability to new situations do not function the way researchers previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal Cell. Earlier theories are based on laboratory animals, but now researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have studied the human brain. The results show that a type of support cell, the oligodendrocyte, which plays an important role in the cell-cell communication in the nervous system, is more sophisticated in humans than in rats and mice -- a fact that may contribute to the superior plasticity of the human brain.

The learning process takes place partly by nerve cells creating new connections in the brain. Our nerve cells are therefore crucial for how we store new knowledge. But it is also important that nerve impulses travel at high speed and a special material called myelin plays a vital role. Myelin acts as an insulating layer around nerve fibres, the axons, and large quantities of myelin speed up the nerve impulses and improve function. When we learn something new, myelin production increases in the part of the brain where learning occurs. This interplay, where the brain's development is shaped by the demands that are imposed on it, is what we know today as the brain's plasticity.

Myelin is made by cells known as oligodendrocytes. In humans, oligodendrocyte generation is very low but despite this, myelin production can be modulated and increased if necessary. In other words, the human brain appears to have a preparedness for it, while in mice and rats, increased myelin production relies on the generation of new oligodendrocytes.

In humans, the existing oligodendrocytes modulate their myelin production, instead of replacing the cells as in mice. It is probably what enables us to adapt and learn faster.

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Source material from Science Daily


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