Dr. Alan Fine and his research team are discovering how people learn and remember by examining the brains of tiny transparent fish called zebrafish. “We can actually see into the fish’s brains under a microscope and trace the functional changes that take place as they form new synapses,” says Dr. Fine, a professor in Dalhousie’s Department Physiology & Biophysics.

To stimulate learning and memory in the zebrafish, Dr. Fine and his colleagues are teaching the fish to associate new odours with the imminent arrival of food. Fluorescent proteins in transgenic fish reveal the molecular mechanisms involved in the learning process, providing clues to what happens inside the brain when animals—and people—learn.

As Dr. Fine explains, we have to modify the synapses among neurons—that is, the connections among brain cells—in order to learn something new. To retain information, we need to maintain these altered connections. “If you have large networks of interconnected neurons, with the right kinds of modifiable connections, you can store and recall information effectively,” he notes. “If the connections among neurons become less changeable, it becomes difficult to lay down new memories or retrieve previously stored information.”

By learning what biochemical changes take place as synaptic connections are formed, strengthened, weakened, or broken, Dr. Fine and his team are identifying specific targets for potential new drugs that could be used for treating or preventing memory loss. His work has clear implications for Alzheimer disease, but also for schizophrenia, autism and other disorders that are affected by the number and strength of synaptic connections in the brain.

“Understanding the fundamental processes of synapse modification is essential to developing effective therapies for memory loss, Alzheimer disease and other neurological and psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Fine.



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