How do dopamine neurons learn

Dopamine promises better learning success

BMBF gives 1.1 million euros for joint project

How can learning be improved? This question is particularly topical, not least against the background of the poor performance of German students in the PISA study. So far, however, the discussion has mainly focused on politically influenceable aspects such as class size or curricula. In a research project that has just been approved, scientists from various disciplines now want to investigate the extent to which learning, memory and functional recovery of the brain can be improved by influencing the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, for example after a stroke, and which mechanisms play a role in this. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is responsible for this joint project, whose spokesperson is Prof. Dr. Stefan Knecht from the Clinic for Neurology is funding with a good 1.1 million euros for three years.

The best conditions for learning success and memory formation exist during brain maturation, i.e. in childhood and adolescence, as well as in situations that are of particular importance for the respective person. In the meantime, scientists have identified various factors in the organism that promote learning. Some of them can even be specifically influenced. This includes the neurotransmitter dopamine. As Knecht reports, a drug-induced increase in this messenger substance in the brain (through the administration of a precursor substance) can both improve learning success and accelerate the recovery of damaged brain functions after a stroke. This "dopaminergic modulation", that is, the influencing of this brain messenger substance, offers "very promising therapeutic possibilities" according to Knecht.

The aim of the joint project in Münster, which has just been approved, is to research these possibilities and the mechanisms that play a role in more detail. A wide range of topics is covered, from lifestyle changes to neural stem cells. The research team therefore includes scientists from a wide variety of disciplines. In addition to neurologists, sports scientists, neuropsychologists, psychologists, neurolinguists, physicists, behavioral biologists and bio-cyberneticists are involved. The methods that are used range from imaging processes such as magnetic encephalography and magnetic resonance imaging to behavioral and sports training and molecular genetic examinations.

As part of this large-scale project, the researchers will, among other things, investigate the question of whether dopamine already influences learning at the level of sensory stimulus processing. They also want to investigate which brain systems must be intact for dopamine to improve learning and memory at all. The focus of her interest is also, for example, how far speech recovery after a stroke can be improved by the brain messenger substance. In addition, they want to find out whether learning can also be promoted through physical training, because it increases dopamine levels in the brain. Last but not least, the Münster scientists also focus on the molecular mechanisms that play an important role in improving learning.