How our brains react to learning new skills

17 October 2008

UCL scientists have published new research into the complex brain processes that enable us to memorise and recreate activities such as playing the piano or riding a bicycle.

Such activities require us to plan and execute complicated sequences of movements involving dozens of muscles and the researchers have sought to determine how some people can almost effortlessly recreate these routines in later life after many years, even decades, without practice – while others struggle.

A team from the UCL Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, headed by Professor Bill Richardson, have conducted experiments that appear to support the idea that “neural plasticity” – the formation and preservation of new neural circuits to acquire and memorise new skills – is achieved by brain cells called oligodendrocytes.

The research, published today in the journal ‘Nature Neuroscience’, suggests that these cells wrap the long connections between neurons (axons) and membranous sheets (myelin), thereby insulating the axons from each other and the extracellular fluid. Electrical impulses can then travel through the brain far more rapidly and efficiently than they otherwise could.

When people learn new skills, new cells formed might go through this process, known as myelination, and so bring into play pre-formed circuits that were previously wired but which were not yet fully functional.

The research presents evidence from human brain imaging that expert pianists who learned and practiced their art from an early age had elevated amounts of myelin in defined parts of the corpus callosum – the major axon tract that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

Professor Richardson’s team sought to show how NG2 cells, which have characteristics of both neuronal and non-neuronal cells, act like stem cells in the brains of adult mice.

They found that NG2 cells divide to generate two different types of mature cells in adult mice, the majority of which are oligodendrocytes.

The team is now exploring further the role of these cells as well as small numbers of new projection neurons, which could potentially contribute to plasticity in the smell-processing circuits of the brain.

UCL Institute of Neurology
The UCL Institute of Neurology is a specialist postgraduate institute of UCL that carries out high-quality research, teaching and training in basic and clinical neurosciences.
Together with its associated specialist hospital, The National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery (NHNN), the Institute promotes translation of research that is of direct clinical relevance to improved patient care and treatment.
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