Everything that you experience leaves its mark on your brain. When you learn something new, the neurons involved in the learning episode grow new projections and form new connections. Your brain may even produce new neurons. Physical exercise can induce similar changes, as can taking antidepressants. By contrast, stress, depression, ageing and disease can have the opposite effect, triggering neurons to break down and even die. The ability of the brain to change in response to experience is known as structural plasticity, and it is in a tug-of-war with processes that drive neurodegeneration.
Structural plasticity occurs in other species too: for example, it was described in the fruit fly more than a quarter of a century ago. Yet, the molecular mechanisms underlying structural plasticity remain unclear. Li et al. now show that, in fruit flies, this plasticity involves Toll receptors, a family of proteins present in the brain but best known for their role in the immune system.
Fruit flies have nine different Toll receptors, the most abundant being Toll-2. When activated, these proteins can trigger a series of molecular events in a cell. Li et al. show that increasing the amount of Toll-2 in the fly brain makes the brain produce new neurons. Activating neurons in a brain region has the same effect, and this increase in neuron number also depends on Toll-2. By contrast, reducing the amount of Toll-2 causes neurons to lose their projections and connections, and to die, and impairs fly behaviour.
Li et al. also show that each Toll receptor has a unique distribution across the fly brain. Different types of experiences activate different brain regions, and therefore different Toll receptors. These go on to trigger a common molecular cascade, but they modulate it such as to result in distinct outcomes. By working together in different combinations, Toll receptors can promote either the death or survival of neurons, and they can also drive specific brain cells to remain dormant or to produce new neurons.
By revealing how experience changes the brain, Li et al. provide clues to the way neurons work and form; these findings may also help to find new treatments for disorders that change brain structure, such as certain psychiatric conditions. Toll-like receptors in humans could thus represent a promising new target for drug discovery.