Learning and Memory: Research in Synaptic Plasticity Event

By: Amanda Shalumov  |  November 25, 2020

By Amanda Shalumov

“Can you imagine a color you’ve never seen before?” Dr. Anamaria Alexandrescu, Ph.D., asked this question as an introduction to her research in the field of neuroscience to the viewers on Zoom at an event hosted by the YU Neuroscience, Psychology, and Pre-Med club. She spent the last few years studying synaptic plasticity in Aplysia californica, commonly known as a sea slug, and now she teaches at multiple universities including Columbia and NYU, sharing her discoveries with young, innovative scholars. When the audience responded that they cannot think of a new color, Dr. Alexandrescu went on to make the point that our brains are made up of memories. Although it may seem like a bold claim to make, as she went on to explain how humans rely on memories for our behaviors, it became increasingly apparent that our memories play a huge role in our everyday lives — perhaps a larger role than most of us initially anticipated. 

To prove this, she asked us another question. “If I tell you to imagine an apple, how did you know what to think of?” The answer may seem obvious — because we have seen apples before. This demonstrates that everything we currently know is a result of our memories being exposed to it. We have seen an apple for the first time at some point in our lives, and solidified the information in our memories so that when an apple is referenced in the future, we can recall the information we learned. Through our five senses we perceive stimuli, using our memories to solidify the information so we may apply it daily to situations that correspond. This shows the significance of researching different areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is related to memory formation. 

Dr. Anamaria Alexandrescu went on to introduce her mentors. She started with her “scientific grandfather” as she calls him, Eric Kandel. He brilliantly used Aplysia californica to study the molecular mechanisms of memory formation. He won the 2,000 Nobel Prize and was the postdoc of Thomas Carew, who was Dr. Alexandrescu’s mentor or “scientific father,” as she says. With the help of her mentors and their previous work, Dr. Anamaria made notable discoveries, including studying the growth factor that induces changes in the postsynaptic neuron when Aplysia forms memories. It’s important to consider that in the first 20-30 years of research with Aplysia, it was thought that all the changes occur in the presynaptic neuron. However, as more discoveries are being made, the postsynaptic neurons prove to be significant. This indicates the rapid advancements in the field that are being made through generations of neuroscientists. Dr. Alexandrescu additionally researched growth factors —  specifically how they contribute to the neurons forming synapses in development. She studied neurons growing and forming connections for the first time and there was a great parallel in memory formation and neuron development that she observed. She went on to publish two papers as part of her Ph.D. about her research. 

After gaining incredible insight into the process of research in neuroscience, as well as the history behind what we know today, Dr. Anamaria Alexandrsecu provided further information to the young minds at YU, answering any general questions at the end of the session. She explained the career possibilities in neuroscience, including what one can do with a Ph.D. in the field. She mentioned that neuroscience has many subcategories that one can go into, including computational neuroscience and consulting. She also suggested participating in research at labs, and encouraged us to try and be part of a study that we can truly immerse ourselves in intellectually. 

The session wrapped up with a slide presenting her contact information, leaving the viewers with a sense of fascination for the neuroscience field, and more notably, a newfound  appreciation for those who have dedicated their lives to continue the pursuit of knowledge — a bond between generations of curious minds.