Chicks follow their mothers around due to a process called imprinting. Image credit: Lydia Jacobs (CC0 Public Domain)

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A protein involved in the formation of long-term memories is required for chicks to ‘imprint’.

Shortly after hatching, a chick recognizes the sight and sound of its mother and follows her around. This requires a type of learning called imprinting, which only occurs during a short period of time in young life known as the “critical period”. This process has been reported in a variety of birds and other animals where long-term memory formed during a critical period guides vital behaviors. In order to form imprinted memories, neurons must produce new proteins. However, it is not clear how new experiences trigger the production of these proteins during imprinting. Unraveling such mechanisms may help us to develop drugs that can recover plasticity in the adult brain, which could help individuals with brain injuries relearn skills after critical periods are closed.

It is possible to imprint newly hatched chicks to arbitrary sounds and visual stimuli by placing the chicks in running wheels and exposing them to repeated noises and videos. Later on, the chicks respond to these stimuli by running towards the screen, mimicking how they would naturally follow their mother. This system allows researchers to measure imprinting in a carefully controlled laboratory setting.

A protein called elF2α plays a major role in regulating the production of new proteins and has been shown to be required for the formation of long-term memories in adult rodents. Gervasio Batista and colleagues found that elF2α is required to imprint newly hatched chicks to sound. During the critical period, this factor mediates an increase in “memory-spines”, which are small bumps on neurons that are thought to be involved in memory storage. On the other hand, elF2α was not required to imprint newly hatched chicks to visual stimuli, suggesting that there are different pathways involved in regulating imprinting to different senses. Batista and colleagues also demonstrate that using drugs to increase the activity of eIF2α in older chicks could allow these chicks to be imprinted to new sounds.

The next steps following on from this work are to identify proteins that eIF2α regulates to form memories, and to find out why eIF2α is only required to imprint sounds. Future research will investigate the mechanisms that control visual imprinting and how it differs from imprinting to sounds.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Translational control of auditory imprinting and structural plasticity by eIF2α” (December 23, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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