Unexplored neural circuit modulates memory strength -- ScienceDaily
"We know with flies, just like in mammals, there are neurons involved in positive reinforcement, there are neurons involved in negative reinforcement -- the valence neurons -- and then there are this third set," Tomchik says. "Nobody really knew what they did."
The fruit fly brain contains eight groups of neurons that produce dopamine. Three of them can be found in what's known as the fly brain's "mushroom body." Humans don't have an exact analogous brain section, but other brain regions perform similar functions. In Drosophila melanogaster, aka the fruit fly, the mushroom body is an area highly responsive to odors.
Past fly brain studies have shown that one of the dopamine-producing groups projecting into the mushroom body handles desire-inducing memories connected to odors. ("Mmmm, rotten bananas!") while another guides avoidant behavior related to negative experiences. ("Yikes, dangerous banana smell!")
To find out the role of the third group, referred to as PPL2, research associate and first author Tamara Boto, PhD, trained the flies with an experiment that involved exposing them to fruit-like odors while simultaneously giving them a mild electric shock.
Their conditioned response could be visualized under a microscope by adding a green fluorescent protein that releases light upon reacting to calcium. Calcium ions are released when neurons communicate. Stimulating the PPL2 neurons during the odor experiments changed the brightness of the fluorescence when presented with the odor, an indication that the structures involved in learning and memory had altered the degree of response.
"When we activated this PPL2 set of neurons, it would actually modulate the strength of that memory," Tomchik says. "So we see there are dopaminergic neurons that encode the aversive stimulus itself, and then there is this additional set that can turn the volume up or down on that memory."