Dendrites, the tree-like branches of neurons, are covered in protrusions called "dendritic spines" (white dots). Spines receive signals from other neurons and are highly plastic, changing in shape, volume and number over time. (Morales, et al. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2014.)
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change over time. For example, brain cells may be created or lost, and the connections between cells may be strengthened or weakened, altering the circuits responsible for sensation, perception, cognition and action. In other words, “plasticity” is a dynamic process in which the brain is constantly rewired in response to new inputs - from both the internal and external worlds.
All these physical changes alters our abilities. This seems obviously in young children whose brains are rapidly developing as they learn. But until the last decade or so, there was little support for the idea that such changes continue throughout our lifetime.
Using powerful new research tools and techniques, scientists are studying the changes that occur at various levels of organization in the brain, from molecules to cells to circuits. The ultimate goal is understanding how the nervous system manages to stay both robust and flexible. How is this balance established, how is it maintained throughout our lives and how does it enable us to change our behavior? And can we take advantage of these mechanisms to combat brain disorders?
For the first time, scientists have watched sleep transform the brain. The research confirms a long-standing theory about the value of sleep—and helps explain why sleep deprivation messes with our ability to remember. Four neuroscientists—Chiara Cirelli, Graham Diering, Richard Huganir and Ken Paller—discuss two breakthrough sleep studies.
KIBS researchers aim to crack the code of the mammalian brain, starting with one of its memory networks. Neuroscientist Attila Losonczy discusses the ambitious plan and why it has received the support of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative.
For most of us, a declining memory is a normal consequence of growing old. But why? What’s happening in the brain that causes age-related memory decline, and is there anything we can do to slow this decline?
New findings reveal memory networks more intricate than previously believed. Understanding these pathways may help develop ways to enhance learning, mitigate memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s or guard against memory loss from aging.
How does the brain gather information from the outside world and use it to guide behavior? Three neuroscientists who have spent much of their research careers trying to answer that question were awarded the 2012 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.
Recent research is beginning to answer these fundamental questions by exploring the plasticity of the adult brain—its ability to readily be shaped by experience. Contrary to the common assumption that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, there is increasingly strong evidence that the adult human brain is remarkably malleable and capable of new feats even in the last decades of life.
Armed with new imaging methods such as two-photon microscopy, Tobias Bonhoeffer, director of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsreid, Germany, is a leading researcher on how the brain adapts to its environment.