Experiences early in life have an impact on the brain's biological and functional development, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. Its findings, which centered on changes in mice and rats, reveal how learning and memory abilities may vary, depending on the nature of individual experiences in early life.
"The implications of this are many, including environmental influences on mental health, the role of education, the significance of poverty, and the impact of social settings," says Cristina Alberini, a professor in New York University's Center for Neural Science and the senior author of the paper, which appears in the journal Nature Communications .
"These results also offer promise for potential therapeutic interventions," add Alberini and Benjamin Bessieres, an NYU postdoctoral researcher and the paper's co-lead author. "By identifying critical time periods for brain development, they provide an indicator of when pharmaceutical, behavioral or other type of interventions may be most beneficial."
In general, very little is known about the mechanisms that underlie the development of learning and memory abilities. The Nature Communications study sought to shed new light on this process studying the biological elements linked to episodic memories--those of specific events or experiences--in infants by using rats and mice.
In their experiments, the scientists tested whether and how different types of experiences mature learning and memory abilities.
In one experience, infant mice and rats were placed in a small compartment--a procedure paired with a mild foot shock (a commonly used method to test memory for a context). Their memory was tested by placing them back in these compartments; if they revealed a hesitation, it indicated that they had formed a memory of previously being in the compartment.
In a different type of experience, the infant mice and rats were exposed to novel objects in a given spatial configuration. Here, rodents that have a memory for this experience show more exploration toward a novel object location when presented with a combination of new and old locations, simply because they have a natural tendency to explore more new object locations. This reveals a memory of object location. Both types of experiences, context and object location, are stored by the same memory system.
The authors then asked two questions.
The first was: Does learning mature memory abilities? Related Stories
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