Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes the collaboration between scientists at UCLA and Sydney, Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research. The findings have major implications for neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to reconfigure itself to create alternate neural pathways.
The team made a breakthrough discovery when analyzing rats with damage to the hippocampus—the part of the brain that is tasked with memory, or is sometimes referred to as the ‘learning center.’ Fanselow and Zelikosky, the study’s authors, found that although the rats needed more training than rats without neural damage, they were still able to learn new tasks, something that would be impossible if the brain did not have a certain level of plasticity. Instead of routing information strictly through the hippocampus, the brain reorganized its pathways such that parts of the prefrontal cortex were utilized for things that the hippocampus would have been responsible for.
This research is the first to demonstrate neural-circuit plasticity and it differs from previous research that focused on repairing parts of the brain, instead of working with reconfiguring neural pathways. Fanselow commented, “Until now, we’ve been trying to figure out how to stimulate repair within the hippocampus. Now we can see other structures stepping in and whole new brain circuits coming into being.” Interestingly, the authors found that certain regions of the prefrontal cortex contributed to the new neural pathways in different ways.
What is particularly noteworthy about this study is that it has broader implications for humans. Understanding how the brain rewires itself after injuries or other damage has the potential to lead to treatments for people with Alzheimer’s or who have experienced stroke. According to Zelilkowsky, we have to first learn the role that each part of the brain plays in neuroplasticity, and then we can learn to guide the brain to create new pathways to compensate for past neurological trauma.