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Saturday, March 19, 2011

GABA influences motor learning

How come my daughter picks up the newest tae kwan do moves in a matter of minutes, and I’m still struggling with them months later? According to Charlotte Stagg and her team from the University of Oxford, the answer may lie in our responsiveness to GABA.

GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), pictured above, is a neurotransmitter. Although structurally an amino acid, it is not incorporated into proteins but instead acts to regulate neural activity and muscle tone. Stagg and her colleagues wondered whether differences in responsiveness to GABA might affect motor learning as well.

To that end, the scientists measured GABA levels in volunteers both before and after those levels were decreased artificially by anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (low level current applied to their scalps). These magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans gave the researchers information about baseline GABA levels and GABA responsiveness in the participants. On a different day, the same volunteers were again scanned for GABA levels, this time while attempting to memorize and execute a sequence of finger motions. Those who had been more responsive to GABA learned the motions more quickly.

The scientists hypothesize that GABA responsiveness may affect one’s ability to make the neural connections necessary for learning and memory. In that case, controlling GABA levels may result in a potential treatment for brain trauma.

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