Pharmacological and molecular enhancement of learning in aging and Alzheimer's disease

John F. Disterhoft*, M. Matthew Oh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


When animals learn hippocampus-dependent associative and spatial tasks such as trace eyeblink conditioning and the water maze, CA1 hippocampal neurons become more excitable as a result of reductions in the post-burst, slow afterhyperpolarization. The calcium-activated potassium current that mediates this afterhyperpolarization is activated by the calcium influx that occurs when a series of action potentials fire and serves as a modulator of neuronal firing frequency. As a result, spike frequency accommodation is also reduced after learning. Neuronal calcium buffering processes change and/or voltage-dependent calcium currents increase during aging; leading to enhancements in the slow afterhyperpolarization, increased spike frequency accommodation and age-associated impairments in learning. We describe a series of studies done to characterize this learning-specific enhancement in intrinsic neuronal excitability and its converse in aging brain. We have also combined behavioral pharmacology and biophysics in experiments demonstrating that compounds that increase neuronal excitability in CA1 pyramidal neurons also enhance learning rate of hippocampus-dependent tasks, especially in aging animals. The studies reviewed here include those using nimodipine, an L-type calcium current blocker that tends to cross the blood-brain barrier; metrifonate, a cholinesterase inhibitor; CI1017, a muscarinic cholinergic agonist; and galantamine, a combined cholinesterase inhibitor and nicotinic agonist. Since aging is the chief risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, a disease that targets the hippocampus and associated brain regions and markedly impairs hippocampus-dependent learning, these compounds have potential use as treatments for this disease. Galantamine has been approved by the USDA for this purpose. Finally, we have extended our studies to the TG2576 transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease (AD), that overproduces amyloid precursor protein (APP) and increases levels of toxic β-amyloid in the brain. Not only do these mice show deficits in hippocampus-dependent learning as they age, but their hippocampal neurons show a reduced capacity to increase their levels of intrinsic excitability with reductions in the slow afterhyperpolarization after application of the muscarinic agonist carbachol. These TG2576 APP overproducing mice were crossed with BACE1 knockout mice, that do not produce β-amyloid because cleavage of APP by the β-site APP cleaving enzyme 1 (BACE1) is a critical step in its formation. Not only was hippocampus-dependent learning rescued in the bigenic TG2576-BACE1 mice, but the capacity of hippocampal neurons to show normal enhancements of intrinsic excitability was restored. The series of studies reviewed here support our hypothesis that enhancement in intrinsic excitability by reductions in calcium-activated potassium currents in hippocampal neurons is an important cellular mechanism for hippocampus-dependent learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)180-192
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Physiology Paris
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Mar 2006


  • Afterhyperpolarization
  • BACE
  • Calcium channel
  • Cholinesterase inhibitor
  • Eyeblink conditioning
  • Muscarinic
  • TG2576

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology (medical)

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