• Written by Sarah DeGenova Ackerman, Postdoctoral Fellow, UO Institute of Neuroscience and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of Oregon

The Research Brief[1] is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Neuroplasticity – the ability of neurons to change their structure and function in response to experiences[2] – can be turned off and on by the cells that surround neurons in the brain, according to a new study[3] on fruit flies that I co-authored.

As fruit fly larvae age, their neurons shift from a highly adaptable state to a stable state and lose their ability to change. During this process, support cells in the brain – called astrocytes – envelop the parts of the neurons[4] that send and receive electrical information. When my team removed the astrocytes, the neurons in the fruit fly larvae remained plastic longer, hinting that somehow astrocytes suppress a neuron’s ability to change. We then discovered two specific proteins that regulate neuroplasticity.

Fruit flies on a table. As fruit flies develop, special cells surround their neurons and seem to halt neuroplasticity. Sarah DeGenova Ackerman, CC BY-ND[5]

Why it matters

The human brain is made up of billions of neurons that form complex connections with one another. Flexibility at these connections is a major driver of learning and memory[6], but things can go wrong if it isn’t tightly regulated. For example, in people, too much plasticity at the wrong time is linked to brain disorders such as epilepsy[7] and Alzheimer’s disease[8]. Additionally, reduced levels of the two neuroplasticity-controlling proteins we identified are linked to increased susceptibility to autism[9] and schizophrenia[10].

Similarly, in our fruit flies, removing the cellular brakes on plasticity permanently impaired their crawling behavior. While fruit flies are of course different from humans, their brains work in very similar ways to the human brain and can offer valuable insight.

One obvious benefit of discovering the effect of these proteins is the potential to treat some neurological diseases. But since a neuron’s flexibility is closely tied to learning and memory, in theory, researchers might be able to boost plasticity[11] in a controlled way to enhance cognition in adults[12]. This could, for example, allow people to more easily learn a new language or musical instrument.

A colorful microscope image of a developing fruit fly brain. In this image showing a developing fruit fly brain on the right and the attached nerve cord on the left, the astrocytes are labeled in different colors showing their wide distribution among neurons. Sarah DeGenova Ackerman, CC BY-ND[13]

How we did the work

My colleagues and I[14] focused our experiments on a specific type of neurons called motor neurons. These control movements like crawling[15] and flying[16] in fruit flies. To figure out how astrocytes controlled neuroplasticity, we used genetic tools to turn off specific proteins in the astrocytes one by one and then measured the effect on motor neuron structure. We found that astrocytes and motor neurons communicate with one another using a specific pair of proteins called neuroligins and neurexins. These proteins essentially function as an off button for motor neuron plasticity[17].

What still isn’t known

My team discovered that two proteins can control neuroplasticity, but we don’t know how these cues from astrocytes cause neurons to lose their ability to change.

Additionally, researchers still know very little about why neuroplasticity is so strong in younger animals and relatively weak in adulthood[18]. In our study, we showed that prolonging plasticity beyond development can sometimes be harmful to behavior[19], but we don’t yet know why that is, either.

What’s next

I want to explore why longer periods of neuroplasticity can be harmful. Fruit flies are great study organisms for this research because it is very easy to modify the neural connections in their brains[20]. In my team’s next project, we hope to determine how changes in neuroplasticity during development can lead to long–term changes in behavior.

There is so much more work to be done, but our research is a first step toward treatments that use astrocytes to influence how neurons change in the mature brain. If researchers can understand the basic mechanisms that control neuroplasticity, they will be one step closer to developing therapies to treat a variety of neurological disorders.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter[21].]

Authors: Sarah DeGenova Ackerman, Postdoctoral Fellow, UO Institute of Neuroscience and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of Oregon

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

My Musical Journey – Zarbo

People call me Zarbo. I call myself an artist/producer currently focused on creating catchy electronic dance music and exploring new genres that didn’t exist at the beginning of my musical career in the ‘70’s.  I am the original founding member, fr...

Alex Zarbo - avatar Alex Zarbo

News Company asked some Music Industry “Insiders” their thoughts on the current state and future of “Real Music”

To get a feel for the current state of the music industry, NewsCo asked some insiders to share their thoughts. Here is what they had to say. Real Music, to me, means music created by real instruments where you can hear the bow go across the fiddle o...

NewsCo - avatar NewsCo

Navigating the Gender Gap, Part 2 For Women: How to Work with Men in Music

After comparing notes with some of my female music friends, I’ve come up with some pointers for women about working with male colleagues. As I mentioned in my previous article, “How to Work with Women in Music,” these guidelines are based on per...

Angela Predhomme - avatar Angela Predhomme

The Making Of “ Birkenhead Drill”

The process of self producing a full length album in the middle of a pandemic has been an unending lesson in humility, but it’s also affirmed our love of music and more importantly the music we make together. The journey of Birkenhead Drill taught ...

The Jones Title - avatar The Jones Title

A Healing Power of Rap and Rock

What do Jay-Z, Rick Ruben, Neil Diamond, Snoop Dogg, Chago G. Williams, and Toto’s Steve Lukather have in common?  They can be combined into Six Degrees of Inclusion (not separation per-se).   They all have millions of fans and they have all hugely...

Rebecca DGD - avatar Rebecca DGD

Gold selling and Platinum Award Winning Recording Artist Ny'a, giving back to her community

Gold selling and Platinum Award Winning Recording Artist Ny'a, will be Live in concert on Sessions Livestream, Saturday April 24th at 7:00pm EST. Tickets are $5 dollars, with a donation going to Rahway Food For Friends. Ny'a believe in giving back ...

NewsCo - avatar NewsCo

Metropolitan Business News

4 Creative suggestions for your first business card

Almost all businesses nowadays have a business card. Business cards are important to easily showcase your brand, yourself, and your business. However, not all business cards are made the same. Som...

NewsCo - avatar NewsCo


Ask any of her thousands of global followers - especially the 11,000-plus who’ve learned to monetize their social media, and the 700-plus who’ve created six figure incomes – and they’ll be happy to ...

NewsCo - avatar NewsCo

Why Creativity Is So Important In Digital Marketing

The Role of Creativity in Digital Marketing's Future  As marketers, one of the key tasks is to be creative and look for ways to generate demand and interest in our services and products. Creati...

NewsCo - avatar NewsCo

Essential Tips for Developing Corporate Websites

The corporate industry, just like the others, is experiencing a massive technological revolution. Organizations have changed their marketing criteria by embracing the internet. Therefore, do not be ...

News Co - avatar News Co

How to Make a Personal Injury Claim for Minors

As a parent, you want to make sure your child is always safe. But as much as you want to keep him under your watch, it is impossible to be there for him all the time. When he is out there attendin...

News Co - avatar News Co

Dress for Success - Style Essentials for Every Businessmen

Did you ever glance at a person in passing and instantly think, “Wow, they must be successful”? It seems like the rich and successful people always stand out from the crowd without even trying, ...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Writers Wanted

News Co Media

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion