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Learning changes rats' brains in dramatic, but focused ways

By John Published: February 5, 2011

New research into the education of lab rats shows dramatic structural changes in the  specific network of neurons involved in the learning, according to a study reported in ScienceDaily. The lab rats aren't learning algebra, they're learning how to snag food, but this research shows specifically how their brains change when they learn.

When a laboratory rat learns how to reach for and grab a food pellet -- a pretty complex and unnatural act for a rodent -- the acquired knowledge significantly alters the structure of the specific brain cells involved, which sprout a whopping 22 percent more dendritic spines connecting them to other motor neurons.

The finding, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Mark H. Tuszynski, MD, PhD, professor of neurosciences and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, underscores the brain's remarkable ability to physically change as it learns (not just in rats, but presumably in humans too), but also reveals that the effect is surprisingly restricted to the network of neurons actually involved in the learning.

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