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Why We Remember Important Things And Forget Trivia: Neuron's Synapses Remodel 

Only when the transmission terminals (on the red cells) and the receiver 
stations (on the green cells) are in the right proportion to each other can 
communication actually take place in the brain. (Credit: Max Planck Institute 
of Neurobiology / Nägerl)

ScienceDaily (Dec. 3, 2008) — Where would we be without our ability to remember 
important information or, for that matter, to forget irrelevant details? Thanks 
to the flexibility of the nerve cell's communication units, called synapses, we 
are good at both. Up to now, only the receiving side of a synapse was believed 
to play an active role in this reorganization of the brain, which is thought to 
underlie our ability to learn but also to forget.

An incorrect assumption, as scientists at the Max Planck Institute of 
Neurobiology in Martinsried could now show. In the scientific journal Neuron, 
they report that the neurotransmitter-releasing part of a synapse dramatically 
remodels itself in response to electrical stimulation. It may thus make a 
decisive contribution to the adaptability of the brain to ever-changing 

Communication is the be-all and end-all of the brain. Every one of the hundred 
billion nerve cells that comprise our brain is a master of data exchange, with 
contacts to thousands of neighbouring cells. At these points of contact, known 
as synapses, the neuronal information flows along a one-way channel; from the 
upstream cell to the downstream cell. The brain can deal with its complicated 
tasks only when the nerve cells manage to exchange information at the right 
time and place via their synapses.

It therefore comes as no surprise that one of the most outstanding attributes 
of the brain is its great adaptability. This is due to the versatility of the 
synapses, which, depending on whether they are required or not, can proliferate 
or are pruned accordingly. Most scientists are of the opinion that this 
flexible exchange of information is what makes learning and memory possible in 
the first place.

The two sides of information transmission

The receiver side of the points of contact, the spines, plays an active role in 
the assembly and break-down of new synapses. The more information to be 
processed, the more receiver stations the nerve cell will set up. New spines 
grow towards neighbouring cells to form new synapses. If the flow of 
information weakens, the synapses disappear and the spines can regress. By 
comparison, the other side of the synapse, the transmitter unit, also known as 
bouton, was believed to play only a passive role in the formation of synapses.

However, this presumption turned out to be false, as scientists at the Max 
Planck Institute of Neurobiology have now shown. They are the first to 
successfully observe both the receiver side and the transmitter terminal of a 
synapse over an extended period of time. This involved tagging a number of 
nerve cells with a red fluorescent dye and labelling the connected cells in 
green. Using a high-resolution two-photon microscope, changes on both sides 
could be observed in time-lapse sequences.

It soon became clear that the transmitter unit of a synapse played a 
considerably more active role in the assembly and disintegration of the synapse 
than hitherto assumed. Once the flow of information to be passed on by a cell 
is reduced, many of the meanwhile superfluous transmitter stations are broken 
down. Furthermore, since this novel experimental approach enabled them to watch 
the contacts between boutons and spines breaking down directly under the 
microscope, the scientists were able to verify that the reduction in the number 
of spines does, in fact, result in the loss of synapses.

The brain's reorganization is unexpectedly complex

"What is particularly exciting is that, all in all, the number of transmitter 
terminals remains constant", project leader Valentin Nägerl explains. While the 
number of synapses is reduced when the flow of information weakens, new 
transmitter terminals emerge elsewhere in a seemingly balanced fashion. Since 
only those cells that originally communicated with each other were tagged, the 
scientists do not know whether the new transmitters pass the information on to 
nerve cells that were hitherto not involved in the communication. "Perhaps the 
cells form new synapses to inhibitory nerve cells, which would reduce the 
transmission of synaptic information even more", Nadine Becker speculates on 
her results. The scientists now aim to investigate precisely this possibility 
by also visualizing synapses formed with inhibitory neurons. One thing is for 
certain: The processing of information is not exclusive to the receiver cell. 
The transmitter cell reacts actively
 to the situation at hand and therefore plays an important role in our ability 
to learn and remember things.

Journal reference:

   1. Nadine Becker, Corette Wierenga, Rosalina Fonseca, Tobias Bonhoeffer, U. 
Valentin Nägerl. LTD induction causes morphological changes in presynaptic 
boutons and reduces their contacts with spines. Neuron, November 26, 2008

Adapted from materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft.
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following formats:

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (2008, December 3). Why We Remember Important Things 
And Forget Trivia: Neuron's Synapses Remodel Themselves. ScienceDaily. 
Retrieved December 3, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ 

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