Spine Tuning: Finding Physical Evidence of How Practice Rewires the Brain
In kindergarten, several of my friends and I were very serious about learning to tie our shoes. I remember sitting on the edge of the playground, looping laces into bunny ears and twisting them into a knot over and over again until I had it just right. A few years later, whistling became my new challenge. On the car ride to school or walking between classes, I puckered my lips and blew, shifting my tongue like rudder to direct the air. Finally, after weeks of nothing but tuneless wooshing, I whistled my first note.
Although I had no inkling of it at the time, my persistence rewired my brain. Just about everything we do modifies connections between brain cells—learning and memory are dependent on this flexibility. When we improve a skill through practice, we strengthen connections between neurons involved in that skill. In a recent study, scientists peeked into the brains of living mice as the rodents learned some new tricks. Mice who repeated the same task day after day grew more clusters of mushroomlike appendages on their neurons than mice who divided their attention among different tasks. In essence, the scientists observed a physical trace of practice in the brain.
Yi Zuo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her colleagues studied how neurons changed in the brains of three groups of mice that learned different kinds of behaviors over four days, as well as a fourth group of mice that went about business as usual, learning nothing new. Of the three learning groups, the first practiced the same task each day, learning how to stretch their paws through gaps in a Plexiglass cage to get a tasty seed just within reach. The second group practiced two tasks: reaching for a seed and learning how to eat slippery bits of capellini, a very thin pasta. Each day mice in the third group played in a cage outfitted with a different set of toys, such as ropes, ladders and mesh on which to scamper and climb. [continue]
Zuo and her colleagues have shown that dendritic spines can pop into existence incredibly quickly—within an hour of a training session
Wow, a lot must be happening in that tiny hour! Without biological or molecular schooling, I'm just guessing/imagining that there might be some kind of chemical path being forged or worn at dendritic distances during an activity, which (like a breadcrumb path) is then somehow followed during cellular dendritic growth.
Where's our TA neurobiologist?!
I'm guessing you may be right. But what do I know?