Brain cells may be changed by learning new ideas

Harold Mandel's picture
A human brain

Function determines brain structure in the same way as structure determines function. What this means is the human brain always has potential for change and negativistic views by psychiatrists that people whom they label as suffering from mental illness have fixed structural defects in the brain represent a backwards view of the potential of the human brain to be nurtured not just by good nutrition, but also by learning, and move forward.

What are known as synaptic cadherin adhesion complexes have been found to be key regulators of synapse plasticity in the brain, reports the journal Nature Neuroscience. However, there has not been a clear understanding of the molecular mechanisms which coordinate activity-induced modifications in cadherin localization and adhesion and the changes in synapse morphology and efficacy which follow.

Researchers have demonstrated in mice intracellular cadherin binding protein changes after enhanced synaptic activity which results in increased d-catenin–cadherin interactions at the synapses. Their findings have suggested a role for palmitoylated d-catenin in coordinating activity-dependent changes which occur in synaptic adhesion molecules, synapse structure and receptor localization which are involved in the formation of memory.

Shernaz Bamji and Stefano Brigidi have discovered how brain cells change during learning and the development of memories, reports The University of British Columbia in a discussion of this research on February 24, 2014. Their research has identified a significant molecular change which occurs in the brain when we learn and remember.

Essentially, what this research shows is that learning stimulates our brain cells in a manner which causes a small fatty acid to attach to delta-catenin, which is a protein in the brain. The study found the biochemical modification which occurs is essential in producing the changes in brain cell connectivity which are associated with learning.


The scientists discovered almost twice the amount of modified delta-catenin in the brain after learning about new environments, in animal models. Delta-catenin had already been linked to learning. However, this is the first study which describes the protein’s role in the molecular mechanism which is behind memory formation. Co-author Shernaz Bamji, who is an associate professor in UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, has said, “More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases.”

The researchers think the findings in this study may also provide an explanation for some mental disabilities. People who are born without the delta-catenin gene have a severe form of mental retardation which is called Cri-du-chat syndrome. This rare genetic disorder is named for the high-pitched cat-like cry of infants who are affected. Disruption of the delta-catenin gene has also been observed in some patients who may suffer from other forms of mental illness.

Brigidi, first author of the article and a PhD candidate in Bamji’s laboratory, has said, “Brain activity can change both the structure of this protein, as well as its function.” What these researchers found was when they introduced a mutation which blocked the biochemical modification which occurs in healthy subjects, they abolished the structural changes in brain cells which are known to be important for the formation of memory.

These researchers believe that more work is necessary to fully establish the importance of delta-catenin in building the brain connectivity which is behind learning and memory. It is believed disruptions to these nerve cell connections cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington disease. An understanding of the biochemical processes which are important for maintaining these connections may help to address the abnormalities in nerve cells which occur in these disease states.

It represents dangerous negativistic thinking to tell patients who are suspected of suffering from mental illnesses or other neurodegenerative diseases that they have fixed structural defects in the brain which supposedly make their illnesses intractable without taking very dangerous psychiatric drugs which generally make things even worse for patients. This has been the theory behind what the psychiatrists refer to as advanced scientific thinking, even though in their actual diagnoses they base their opinions on subjective evaluations without any actual biological markers demonstrated in their patients to back up their diagnoses.

It is my position that patients who may be suffering from some type of mental problems and those who deal with them should be advised that the human brain is in fact not static in nature and that learning and other significant interactions with the brain which form memory does in fact alter structure and function of the brain, as this research supports. This means the potential of just about anyone's human brain is essentially unlimited if you want to take the time to help them learn new things and experience new things in life. Instead of trying to fuel the brain with toxic psychiatric drugs to assist in the nurturing of the human brain, I suggest concentrating on good nutrition and exercise.


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