As we learn a new skill, how does our brain change to store information about the actions involved? Cortical neurons receive information from the thousands of synaptic inputs onto the dendritic tree. Learning occurs when the efficacy of these inputs changes in response to patterns of activity. Within the dendrite, location-dependent learning rules and interactions between inputs sculpt these changes.
The Kerlin Lab uses advanced two-photon microscopy techniques to understand how dendritic compartments and individual synapses within the motor cortex are modified as mice learn to perform new tasks. Recent work has identified a distinct loop between cortex and thalamus that maintains motor plans in the absence of overt action. By tracking and manipulating dendritic activity while monitoring the kinematics of action, the researchers are determining the critical subcellular loci for the learning of new motor plans. Clarifying the biophysical events that drive normal plasticity will help identify ways to shift cortical plasticity into regimes that favor the improvement of cognitive motor disorders or rehabilitation after damage to motor systems.