Multiple recent human imaging studies have suggested that the structure of the brain can change with learning. To investigate the mechanism behind such structural plasticity, we sought to determine whether maze learning in mice induces brain shape changes that are detectable by MRI and whether such changes are specific to the type of learning. Here we trained inbred mice for 5 days on one of three different versions of the Morris water maze and, using high-resolution MRI, revealed specific growth in the hippocampus of mice trained on a spatial variant of the maze, whereas mice trained on the cued version were found to have growth in the striatum. The structure-specific growth found furthermore correlated with GAP-43 staining, a marker of neuronal process remodelling, but not with neurogenesis nor neuron or astrocyte numbers or sizes. Our findings provide evidence that brain morphology changes rapidly at a scale detectable by MRI and furthermore demonstrate that specific brain regions grow or shrink in response to the changing environmental demands. The data presented herein have implications for both human imaging as well as rodent structural plasticity research, in that it provides a tool to screen for neuronal plasticity across the whole brain in the mouse while also providing a direct link between human and mouse studies.
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