Long-Term Potentiation – A Discovery Worthy of the Brain Prize
“The Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize is an international scientific award that was founded in 2011 and that honours “one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to European neuroscience and who are still active in research”.
The initiative of the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation is also known as The Brain Prize, and it was intended as a celebration of the greatest achievements in neuroscience, as well as a means to “enhance the interaction between Danish and European brain research.”
Last year’s recipients of the so-called ‘Nobel Prize’ of neuroscience were professors Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris.
Together they made groundbreaking advances that revealed how nerve connections, or synapses in the hippocampus – a brain region vital to our memory – can be strengthened through repeated stimulation.
The process is known as long-term potentiation or LTP for short, because it can persist indefinitely. The work of these three scientists has revealed some of the basic mechanisms behind the phenomenon and has shown that LTP is the basis for our ability to learn and remember.
Leading neurologist Sir Colin Blakemore, who chaired the Brain Prize selection committee, explained why the prize was given to the British team:
“Memory is at the heart of human experience. This year’s winners, through their ground-breaking research, have transformed our understanding of memory and learning, and the devastating effects of failing memory.”
The long-term potentiation process showcases the inherent plasticity of the synapses, which can change in response to experience. This flexibility is proof of the fact that the brain has the capacity to reorganize itself, at least to some extent, after damage such as a stroke, or after the loss of normal input, as in blindness.
It also seems that deficits and disorders that affect the capacity to alter our synaptic strength are part of the reason why millions of people around the world suffer from autism, schizophrenia, stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, epilepsy, addiction, and other brain-related conditions.
LTP research is still in its incipient stage, but new and emerging knowledge of the role of LTP will help guide the way to finding and improving treatments.
LTP – Past and Present
Tim Bliss, visiting worker at the Francis Crick Institute, together with Terje Lømo, his Norwegian colleague, gave the first detailed description of long-term potentiation as early as 1973. Since then, Professor Bliss has continued to be a driving force in LTP research, concentrating on the cellular mechanisms that sustain LTP and its relation to memory.
Graham Collingridge, Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto and a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, has developed and applied a few techniques to identify several of the key molecules that are responsible for LTP. He is the one who discovered the role of the so-called NMDA receptor in the induction of LTP. The NMDA receptor is a protein in the brain that is important for ensuring communication works smoothly between nerve cells.
In 1986, Richard Morris, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, used a new method he had developed, to show that rats and mice needed LTP to learn to find their way around a new environment. Using specific drugs acting as the NMDA receptor, he began a long program of research to establish the role of LTP in memory building and strengthening.
All these achievements have convinced the Brain Prize selection committee that the UK-based neuroscientists are worthy of receiving The Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize. Professor Jakob Balslev Sørensen of the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen, explained this as follows:
“The three prize winners have made the crucial discovery that it’s the small points of contact between the neurons – the synapses – that alter in character and that these changes may be permanent and, consequently, may alter the function of the brain in the long term. The phenomenon of long-term potentiation has attracted much attention in research circles, so this year’s award provides all brain researchers with an opportunity to stop and appreciate how far we’ve actually come.”
The scientists’ results have revealed that the brain is not static mass, that it has a great degree of malleability which allows it to handle and adapt itself to new circumstances & events, an ability without which we would not be able to learn, memorize and evolve.