Updating the brain

A mechanism known as dendritic calcium spikes helps to rewire neural connections to alter internal spatial representation.
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A top-down input (red) that reaches hippocampal cells (in gold) involved in spatial representation can rapidly update the information these cells represent by changing the strengths of their synaptic inputs. Image credit: Alessandro Galloni (CC BY 4.0)

A new housing development in a familiar neighborhood, a wrong turn that ends up lengthening a Sunday stroll: our internal representation of the world requires constant updating, and we need to be able to associate events separated by long intervals of time to finetune future outcome. This often requires neural connections to be altered.

A brain region known as the hippocampus is involved in building and maintaining a map of our environment. However, signals from other brain areas can activate silent neurons in the hippocampus when the body is in a specific location by triggering cellular events called dendritic calcium spikes.

Milstein et al. explored whether dendritic calcium spikes in the hippocampus could also help the brain to update its map of the world by enabling neurons to stop being active at one location and to start responding at a new position. Experiments in mice showed that calcium spikes could change which features of the environment individual neurons respond to by strengthening or weaking connections between specific cells. Crucially, this mechanism allowed neurons to associate event sequences that unfold over a longer timescale that was more relevant to the ones encountered in day-to-day life.

A computational model was then put together, and it demonstrated that dendritic calcium spikes in the hippocampus could enable the brain to make better spatial decisions in future. Indeed, these spikes are driven by inputs from brain regions involved in complex cognitive processes, potentially enabling the delayed outcomes of navigational choices to guide changes in the activity and wiring of neurons. Overall, the work by Milstein et al. advances the understanding of learning and memory in the brain and may inform the design of better systems for artificial learning.