Learning to learn: theta oscillations predict new learning, which enhances related learning and neurogenesis

PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e31375. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031375. Epub 2012 Feb 10.


Animals in the natural world continuously encounter learning experiences of varying degrees of novelty. New neurons in the hippocampus are especially responsive to learning associations between novel events and more cells survive if a novel and challenging task is learned. One might wonder whether new neurons would be rescued from death upon each new learning experience or whether there is an internal control system that limits the number of cells that are retained as a function of learning. In this experiment, it was hypothesized that learning a task that was similar in content to one already learned previously would not increase cell survival. We further hypothesized that in situations in which the cells are rescued hippocampal theta oscillations (3-12 Hz) would be involved and perhaps necessary for increasing cell survival. Both hypotheses were disproved. Adult male Sprague-Dawley rats were trained on two similar hippocampus-dependent tasks, trace and very-long delay eyeblink conditioning, while recording hippocampal local-field potentials. Cells that were generated after training on the first task were labeled with bromodeoxyuridine and quantified after training on both tasks had ceased. Spontaneous theta activity predicted performance on the first task and the conditioned stimulus induced a theta-band response early in learning the first task. As expected, performance on the first task correlated with performance on the second task. However, theta activity did not increase during training on the second task, even though more cells were present in animals that had learned. Therefore, as long as learning occurs, relatively small changes in the environment are sufficient to increase the number of surviving neurons in the adult hippocampus and they can do so in the absence of an increase in theta activity. In conclusion, these data argue against an upper limit on the number of neurons that can be rescued from death by learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Survival
  • Hippocampus
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Neurons
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Theta Rhythm / physiology*