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Neuroscience: The Power of Curiosity to Inspire Learning

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Snowflakes activating the brainWhen our curiosity is piqued, learning can be a snap and recalling the new information comes effortlessly. But when it comes to things we don’t care about—the recipe to that “delicious” holiday fruitcake or, if we’re not really into football, the results of this year’s San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl—the new information rarely sticks.

To probe why this might be so, neuroscientists Charan Ranganath and Matthias Gruber, and psychologist Bernard Gelman, all at the University of California at Davis, devised a multi-step experiment to explore which regions of the brain are activated when we are curious, and how curiosity enhances our ability to learn and remember.


Can Something in Young Blood Give a Boost to Old Brains?

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Fountain of youth with bloodInfusing blood from younger creatures into older ones in hopes of halting—or even reversing—the aging process may sound like a macabre scene straight out of “Game of Thrones.” However, several scientific studies have shown that when older animals receive blood from younger counterparts, it improves the function of stem cells throughout the body, boosting tissue regeneration and healing. What’s not been clear is whether this activity can also rejuvenate the brain’s cognitive powers.

Let’s face it: aging is tough on the brain. The number of neural stem cells shrinks, producing fewer neurons; and many of the genes that promote brain development and neural connections become less active. To find out if young blood might hold some of the answers to this complex problem, two teams of NIH-funded researchers—one in Massachusetts and the other in California—recently turned to mice as a model system.


Mice Learn Better with Help from Human Brain Cells

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Photo image of human astrocytes

Human astrocytes in a mouse brain
Source: Steven Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., University of Rochester Medical Center

What happens when you implant human glia—a type of brain cell that protects and nurtures neurons—into the brains of newborn mice? Well, it turns out these glia mature into multi-talented astrocyte cells that provide nutrients, repair injuries, and modulate signals just like they do in a human brain. They even assume the same complex star shape!

We know the cells in question are indeed human astrocytes because they produce a group of specific proteins, which are tagged with a combination of dyes that together appear yellow in this image. In contrast, the mouse cells are blue.

This all looks very pretty, but you might wonder what impact these human astrocytes have on mouse cognition. Researchers found mice that received the implants were better able to learn and remember than those that didn’t. In short, the human cells seem to have made the mice smarter.

Interestingly, human astrocytes are larger, more complex, and more diverse than their counterparts in other species. So, perhaps these cells may hold some of the keys to our own unique cognitive abilities.

Reference:

Forebrain Engraftment
by Human Glial Progenitor Cells Enhances Synaptic Plasticity and Learning in Adult Mice. Xiaoning Han, Michael Chen, Fushun Wang, Martha Windrem, Su Wang, Steven Shanz, Qiwu Xu, Nancy Ann Oberheim, Lane Bekar,  Sarah Betstadt,  Alcino J. Silva, Takahiro Takano, Steven A. Goldman, and Maiken Nedergaard. Cell Stem Cell 12, 342–353, March 7, 2013.

NIH support: the National Institute of Mental Health; and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


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