Myelin’s Role in Motor Learning

Oct 19, 2014

Image: WikipediaLADYOFHATS

By Ashley P. Taylor

Changes in myelin, the fatty sheaths that insulate neuronal axons, may play a role in motor learning, according to a study published today (October 16) in Science. Genetically engineered mice that could not produce myelin were less skilled at learning a new motor task—running on a wheel with unevenly spaced rungs—than control mice.

“The paper shows very clearly that the ability to generate new myelin is necessary for adult mice to learn a complex motor task,” said the University of Michigan’s Gabriel Corfas, author of an accompanying commentary in Science and who was not involved in the research.

Moreover, because myelin is produced by non-neuronal glial cells called oligodendrocytes, which myelinate axons by extending thin processes of their cell membranes to wrap around them, the study challenges the long-standing assumption that learning results exclusively from changes to neuronal anatomy or function. “What this paper really does in a very compelling and elegant way is show that the glial cells . . . really perform much more important tasks than had hitherto been assigned to them,” said Robin Franklin, professor at the University of Cambridge, who studies the process of remyelination and who was not involved in the work. “This paper is a very significant step in a mounting body of work that shows that in fact the glial cells are not simply cells for neurons; they have, in their own right, fundamentally important roles in how the brain works.”

“This is a very significant paradigm shift in the ways we think about how the brain changes in order to acquire information,” Corfas agreed.

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One comment on “Myelin’s Role in Motor Learning”

  • Nerve damage causes a weakened muscle reaction, so the quality of the insulation sheaths on nerve fibres is likely to have a considerable effect on the co-ordination and accuracy in control of muscles.

    A lot of motor control is learned by usage and habit, as can be seem (for example), in the difference between a master musician and a beginner in handling an instrument.

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