Learning and Memory
Memory is a behavioural change induced by experience and this fundamental mental process is possible because brain synapses are associative machines. We learn every day, in multiple contexts and the brain integrates all stored information. Words, ideas, images, sounds, old and more recent events, positive and negative experiences, etc. are associated and stored with one another. This very complex associative process strongly influences many different aspects of our life including our beliefs, our perceptions, our emotions, our decisions, therefore it is much more pervasive in the brain than we might think. The purpose of this course is to give students a solid, comprehensive introduction to the issue of how neuronal cells communicate, learn and remember. We will begin by introducing the morphology and the characteristics of brain synapses revealing the mechanisms that lead to the formation of functional synaptic circuits. The initial goal is to describe how do brain synapses transfer information between nerve cells, including the effect on this process of drugs, external factors and diseases. Next, we will address how can synapses associate prior and future events discussing in details what is known today about the cellular and molecular mechanisms of synaptic plasticity and its rules. In other words, since a change in the synaptic transmission efficacy or in the number of functional synaptic units are considered to be the mechanism of information storage, we will discuss what is known today about the different forms of plasticity and their specific requirements for particular patterns of synaptic usage or stimulation. At this point we will be able to introduce the type of changes occurring in the brain when a synaptic memory is formed and stored, including the genetic and epigenetic determinants. Using a multi-level comparative approach, we will integrate insights from basic research with cognitive theory to understand the basic connections between the workings of the synapse and the human behaviour. Since there are many different kinds of memory and since equivalent plastic changes are occurring in many different brain areas, we will concentrate on the specific changes found in the Hippocampus, Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex. Furthermore, because many important questions in this field remain to be answered, and studies concerning these issues are in progress, an important challenge in this course would be to familiarize students with the most recent and advanced experimental techniques that could be used in the near future to address some of the yet unsolved issues.