Understanding the mechanisms of learning and memory formation has always been one of the main goals in neuroscience. Already Pavlov (1927) in his early days has used his classic conditioning experiments to study the neural mechanisms governing behavioral adaptation. What was not known back then was that the part of the brain that is largely responsible for this type of associative learning is the cerebellum.
Since then, plenty of theories on cerebellar learning have emerged. Despite their differences, one thing they all have in common is that learning relies on synaptic and intrinsic plasticity.
The goal of my PhD project was to unravel the molecular mechanisms underlying synaptic plasticity in two synapses that have been shown to be implicated in motor learning, in an effort to understand how learning and memory formation are processed in the cerebellum.
One of the earliest and most well-known cerebellar theories postulates that motor learning largely depends on long-term depression at the parallel fiber-Purkinje cell (PC-PC) synapse. However, the discovery of other types of plasticity in the cerebellar circuitry, like long-term potentiation (LTP) at the PC-PC synapse, potentiation of molecular layer interneurons (MLIs), and plasticity transfer from the cortex to the cerebellar/ vestibular nuclei has increased the popularity of the idea that multiple sites of plasticity might be involved in learning.
Still a lot remains unknown about the molecular mechanisms responsible for these types of plasticity and whether they occur during physiological learning.
In the first part of this thesis we have analyzed the variation and nanodistribution of voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs) and α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid type glutamate receptors (AMPARs) on the parallel fiber-Purkinje cell synapse after vestibulo-ocular reflex phase reversal adaptation, a behavior that has been suggested to rely on PF-PC LTP. We have found that on the last day of adaptation there is no learning trace in form of VGCCs nor AMPARs variation at the PF-PC synapse, but instead a decrease in the number of PF-PC synapses. These data seem to support the view that learning is only stored in the cerebellar cortex in an initial learning phase, being transferred later to the vestibular nuclei.
Next, we have studied the role of MLIs in motor learning using a relatively simple and well-characterized behavioral paradigm – horizontal optokinetic reflex (HOKR) adaptation. We have found behavior-induced MLI potentiation in form of release probability increase that could be explained by the increase of VGCCs at the presynaptic side. Our results strengthen the idea of distributed cerebellar plasticity contributing to learning and provide a novel mechanism for release probability increase.