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iSGTW Image of the Week - Studying the Process of Learning

Image of the Week - Studying the Process of Learning

A simulation by the Virtual Cell project of a membrane reaction in a neuronal dentritic spine, one of the key aspects of learning and memory.
Image courtesy of Virtual Cell

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Our neuronal system lies at the root of learning and thought. Neurons communicate among themselves and with rest of our bodies using electrical and chemical signals. The points of communication between neurons are synapses. At a synapse, a signal received from outside the cell may or may not trigger a chain reaction that propagates the signal to other cells.

After a time, synapses, on tiny protrusions called spines, can become sensitized or desensitized to certain chemical signals, known as neurotransmitters. The next time that synapse receives that neurotransmitter it may be extra responsive, or it may ignore it completely. This helps our brain organize itself in to neuronal circuits-paths of often-used neurons. Currently, researchers believe this is how our brain records learning and memory.

This image, produced by the Virtual Cell project, a grid-enabled tool, shows a model of a spine experiencing a change in its membrane composition (in red) resulting from the neurotransmitter PIP2.

The Virtual Cell project is run out of the University of Connecticut Health Center. The project occasionally offers courses that teach biologists and biophysicists to develop Virtual Cell models of their experimental systems. Learn more at the Virtual Cell Web site.

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