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Caenorhabditis elegans is a microscopic, free-living nematode species that has been studied as a model organism for learning and memory. With a nervous system consisting of 302 neurons, its accessible anatomy accommodates an incredible capacity to support a wide range of behaviors to navigate in its surroundings. In this chapter, we review both the classic and cutting-edge studies on learning and memory in C. elegans. These findings illustrate that learning allows C. elegans to adaptively adjust its behaviors to the environment as a result of experiences and plays a key role in promoting the organism’s fitness. Learning and memory in simple organisms like C. elegans is mediated by complex neural and molecular mechanisms. Mechanisms of learning and memory elucidated from C. elegans studies show convergence onto the learning mechanisms discovered in other species, suggesting that a large portion of the neural principles of learning and memory are rooted in evolution.
Cellular and molecular mechanisms of neural plasticity
John H. Byrne, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, TX, USA,
Diasinou Fioravante, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, TX, USA,
Evangelos G. Antzoulatos, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, TX, USA
The neural mechanisms that contribute to the adaptation of an organism to environmental changes through learning are likely to contribute to the adaptation of the organism to physical changes (e.g., trauma) through repair and rehabilitation. Learning can be distinguished depending on whether it is associative or nonassociative. The examination of learning in simple model systems, such as the marine mollusc Aplysia californica, has proven to be very fruitful. The simplicity and tractability of the neural circuits mediating some behaviors in Aplysia have allowed the cellular/molecular dissection of the underlying neural mechanisms. Indeed a number of critical cells, synapses, and molecules have been identified in Aplysia to mediate basic forms of learning. One way to recruit the processes of neuronal plasticity in repair and rehabilitation is through behavioral learning paradigms, which provide the basis for current therapeutic strategies.
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