Neurobiology of associative learning in the neonate: early olfactory learning

Behav Neural Biol. 1994 Jan;61(1):1-18. doi: 10.1016/s0163-1047(05)80039-1.


Mammalian neonates have been simultaneously described as having particularly poor memory, as evidenced by infantile amnesia, and as being particularly excellent learners with unusually plastic nervous systems that are easily influenced by experience. An understanding of the neurobiological constraints and mechanisms of early learning may contribute to a unified explanation of these two disparate views. Toward that end, we review here our work on the neurobiology of learning and memory in neonates. Specifically, we have examined the neurobiology of early learning using an olfactory classical conditioning paradigm. Olfactory classical conditioning in neonates at the behavioral level conforms well with the requirements and outcomes of classical conditioning described in adults. Furthermore, specific neural correlates of this behavioral conditioning have been described including anatomical and physiological changes, neural pathways, and modulatory systems. In this Review, we outline the behavioral paradigm, the identified neural correlates, and apparent mechanisms of this learning. Finally, we compare the neurobiology of early learning with that reported for mature animals, with specific reference to the role of US-CS convergence, memory modulation, consolidation, and distributed memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Locus Coeruleus / physiology
  • Memory / physiology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Olfactory Bulb / anatomy & histology
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology
  • Propranolol / pharmacology
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Adrenergic / physiology
  • Smell / physiology*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Receptors, Adrenergic
  • Propranolol