Scientific approach und goals
The most important feature of the nervous system is its ability to adapt. Newborn organisms have to process information and derive appropriate actions to improve their conditions to develop. Although most prominent in early development, adaptations are required in all stages of life. The environment constantly changes and even mature organisms have to adapt to altered contingencies to maximize their chance of survival. If the ability to change is lost the consequences are detrimental for the organism.
The most important of these adaptations occur within the nervous system and can be observed at multiple levels. At the molecular and cellular level, adaptive processes accompanying learning, memory and development lead to changes in the expression of a variety of macromolecules, including synaptic proteins and ion channels. At the next spatial scale changes in network activity including oscillatory activity can be observed. Finally, at the ensemble level, changes in activation patterns across multiple brain regions emerge and lead to changes in the micro- or macroarchitecture.
The neuroscience of learning and memory has witnessed a quantum leap of novel insights starting from the properties of molecules to cell and mouse models, from long-term potentiation (LTP) in slice cultures to hippocampal firing patterns during memory formation, and to cortical activation patterns during learning in humans as observed with neuroimaging. There is strong evidence that functional recovery from neurological disorders like stroke or head injury depends critically on the adaptive capacity of the brain. In addition, there is now a firm body of knowledge at all spatial scales about the pathomechanisms leading to neurodegenerative disease and the mechanisms of impaired adaptive capacity in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or related diseases such as Tauopathies or prion diseases. Learning and memory consolidation and ensuing synapse formation are in equilibrium with synapse degeneration, and neurodegeneration is caused by an imbalance in this system. Thus, understanding learning and memory will provide valuable information for understanding the pathophysiology of dementia and vice versa. Only recently have scientists begun to integrate cellular events linked to neurodegeneration to results obtained from studies investigating network activity.