Learning requires rhythmical activity of neurons

The hippocampus represents an important brain structure for learning. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich discovered how it filters electrical neuronal signals through an input and output control, thus regulating learning and memory processes. Accordingly, effective signal transmission needs so-called theta-frequency impulses of the cerebral cortex.

With a frequency of three to eight hertz, these impulses generate waves of electrical activity that propagate through the hippocampus. Impulses of a different frequency evoke no transmission, or only a much weaker one.

Moreover, signal transmission in other areas of the brain through long-term potentiation (LTP), which is essential for learning, occurs only when the activity waves take place for a certain while.

The scientists even have an explanation for why we are mentally more productive after drinking a cup of coffee or in an acute stress situation: in their experiments, caffeine and the stress hormone corticosterone boosted the activity flow.

When we learn and recall something, we have to concentrate on the relevant information and experience it again and again. Electrophysiological experiments in mice now show why this is the case. Scientists belonging to Matthias Ederīs Research Group measured the transmission of electrical impulses between neurons in the mouse hippocampus. Under the fluorescence microscope, they were able to observe in real time how the neurons forward signals.

Jens Stepan, a junior scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, stimulated the input region of the hippocampus the first time that specifically theta-frequency stimulations produce an effective impulse transmission across the hippocampal CA3/CA1 region.