New Prize-Winning Research in Neuroplasticity
Three scientists who have conducted incredible research in neuroplasticity were granted the 2023 Brain Prize, the largest award in the neuroscience field. In this article, we’ll overview their findings and what they could mean for the future of neuroscience.
The basics of neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and make new connections. It is a process that occurs throughout a lifetime. We may think of children’s brains as more flexible, and adult brains as set in their ways. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. While children’s brains are very plastic during development, adult brains are also flexible and able to learn and change. This ability can be attributed to neuroplasticity. This is what allows us to heal from a brain injury, form a new habit, learn a new skill, and shift our attitudes or views over time. It affects who we are, and therefore every aspect of our lives.
The Brain Prize is awarded by the Danish organization The Lundbeck Foundation, and it is the largest brain research prize in the world. This year, three scientists collectively received it. They discovered fascinating new information about neuroplasticity. The scientists, Michael Greenberg, Christine Holt, and Erin Schuman, have made discoveries around how different parts of the neuron bring on the synthesis of new proteins in the brain, guiding brain development and plasticity in ways that impact our cognition throughout our lives.
The short version: Michael Greenberg’s research has shown how rapidly our brains can produce new proteins to support change and gene regulation. His discoveries have also pointed to risk factors for neurodevelopmental disorders. Researchers may explore this more in-depth for potential new therapies.
In his early work, Greenberg, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, discovered the cFos gene and its associated protein called Fos. He found that when brain cells are active, they produce Fos. This begins a process of creating genes related to changing the connections between brain cells. These long-lasting changes affect the wiring of the brain. This was a surprising finding because Fos works quickly. This goes against the previous idea that gene regulation is always a slow process. Throughout his career, Greenberg and his team have continued to study how the brain’s activity shapes its connections. They have discovered important elements that control long-term changes in brain connections, which are vital for memory, behavior, and development.
The short version: Building off of Greenberg’s research, Schuman focused on understanding how the brain maintains and strengthens connections between individual synapses.
Greenberg showed that Fos and other genes are involved in long-term changes in brain connections, but scientists were still unsure about how these changes happen at specific connections that are far away from the cell’s control center, the nucleus. This interested Schuman, the director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. In 1996, Schuman was the first to demonstrate that making new proteins directly at these far-away connections is necessary for strengthening them, even without making any changes in the genes at the nucleus. “The solution that neurons have come up with is to send mRNAs” from the nucleus to the axons, she explained, “once the mRNAs are in the processes, proteins can be made on demand.” Since then, Schuman has continued studying how making and breaking down proteins at specific connections affects the brain’s ability to change, which is important for diseases like Fragile X Syndrome and Tuberous Sclerosis.
The short version: Holt’s research shows how synapses create connections during development. Her discovery includes the location of protein creation in the neuron.
Holt is a neuroscientist as the University of Cambridge. She has studied how synaptic connections form in our brains during development, and how the brain maintains these connections in the long-term. She discovered that as neurons form during development, proteins form and break down at the tip of the axons. Axons are the long tails in neurons along which impulses are conducted. Her work shows how axons are guided over long distances within the brain to form effective connections during development. Her research also includes how proteins can form on-demand to encourage adaptability.
All three researchers’ discoveries combine to give scientists an improved understanding of neuroplasticity. We can now understand more clearly how neuroplasticity works on a cellular and molecular level. They point to how experience can shape both a developing infant brain and a mature adult brain. They also help scientists to more deeply understand the genetic basis of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative conditions. Interruptions in the synapses of the brain can lead to conditions like Fragile X Syndrome and Alzheimer’s. These discoveries may lead to new treatments. We’ll have our eye on these amazing researchers and how their discoveries may change the future of brain health.