Dissecting the Role of Dendrites in Memory

While memory is a function that has attracted the interest of the scientific community for several years, little is known about the rules underlying memory formation in the brain. Until recently, the single neuron was considered the main processing unit of the brain and memories were believed to be stored exclusively through plasticity modifications that take place in the synapses, the connecting sites between neurons. Over the last decade however, emerging evidence suggests that the neuron is no longer the key processing unit of the brain. The dendrites of individual neurons, which were thought as merely passive devices that allow neuronal communication, are currently the #1 candidate for this role.

The goal of this work is to characterize the role of dendrites in learning and memory processes so as to formulate a unifying theory regarding their contribution in memory formation across brain regions and abstraction levels.This will be achieved via the development of computational models that start at the single cell level and expand to the microcircuit and the network level, while varying in their degree of biophysical detail. Models will express a distinct memory function, specific to the region they belong to: the hippocampus the prefrontal cortex or the amygdala. By manipulating the biophysical, anatomical and plasticity properties of dendrites and tracking the effect on memory, the project aims to infer the key rules by which these thin structures shapemnemonic processes. These rules will then form the basis for deducing theoretical abstractions of trainable neurons with dendrites.


In conclusion, this research activity aims to cause a paradigm shift in the way we currently understand learning and memory processes, whereby the dendrites, as opposed to the single neuron, are the key players. The results of this work will have a major impact in fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning but also in the way memory deficits are currently treated, as they will pinpoint new mechanisms that are involved in memory formation.



The dEMORY project is funded by the ERC Starting Grant GA 311435 awarded to P. Poirazi, head of the Computational Biology Lab/IMBB-FORTH