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Molecular learning machine discovered

Scientists have unlocked a key secret of memory with the discovery of a molecular machine that converts transient electrical signals between brain cells into permanent chemicals – the basis of learning.

The discovery could lead to treatments for profound learning disabilities in children, and possibly for schizophrenia, as well as helping the development of memory-enhancing drugs, Professor Seth Grant, a neuroscientist from the University of Edinburgh, told the British Association.

"This molecular machine, which we call the hebbosome, is found at the synapses of the brain, and seems to be important for learning," he said. "It converts electrical activity in nerves into changes inside the cells. It's made up of about 50 to 100 proteins, all bound together ... like a mini-computer."

The hebbosome essentially monitors the electrical activity arriving at the synapse and then generates some sort of chemical that is passed to the nerve cell, which then stores it. That combination of the new chemical affects how the nerve cell reacts in future to other stimuli – the most basic form of learning. Across the brain, it creates the patterns of learning that we recognise in people and animals.

But mutations in the genes that generated the proteins could make the machine malfunction, leading to profound learning disabilities in children and animals, Professor Grant said.