Wire together, fire apart

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Science  08 Sep 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6355, pp. 974-975
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao4159

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The ability to learn and remember new experiences lies at the heart of our existence. After all, we are our memories. It has been widely accepted that memories are formed and stored via strengthening of neural connections due to the correlated activities of neurons, where presumably one neuron is causing or at least contributing to the activity of another connecting neuron and hence becomes associated with it. This principle is known as the Hebbian learning rule (1): i.e., if interconnected neurons become active very close in time during a particular event, their connection strengthens and “a memory” of this event is formed (1). In other words, “neurons wire together, if they fire together” (2). Thus, neural connection must show some sort of plasticity—i.e., an ability to be modified based on the mutual firing patterns of interconnected neurons—in order to form memories and associations. Indeed, it has been shown that brief (hundreds of milliseconds) stimulations of interconnected neurons significantly improve signal transmission between the two, a phenomenon known as long-term potentiation (LTP). On page 1033 of this issue, Bittner et al. (3) describe a different learning mechanism called behavioral time scale synaptic plasticity (BTSP), which spans a considerably longer time course of several seconds, implying that no causal relationship of interconnected neurons may be necessary to form long-lasting associations between them.