Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


Recommended prerequisites are:

7.03 Genetics

7.05 General Biochemistry

7.06 Cell Biology

7.28 Molecular Biology

7.29J Cellular Neurobiology

Course Description

The brain allows organisms to have an incredible capacity to acquire information about the world and to encode, store, and later retrieve that knowledge, but what is the biological basis of learning and memory? How does the brain come to learn whether a stimulus is annoying, rewarding or neutral? How does remembering how to ride a bicycle differ from remembering scenes from a movie?

In this course, students will explore the concept that learning and memory have a physical basis that can be observed as biochemical, physiological and / or morphological changes to neural tissue. We will critically read and discuss primary research articles to become familiar with several different types of learning and memory and the experiments that have enabled them to be distinguished. Different cellular and synaptic mechanisms are thought to underlie distinct types of learning and memory. Newly learnt information is encoded through changes in the strength of existing neuronal connections or by formation of new connections and / or elimination of others. We will discuss the molecular and cellular mechanisms that mediate these changes by exploring concepts such as synapse formation and stabilization, synaptic transmission, synaptic plasticity, neuromodulation and experience-dependent circuit remodeling, among others.

With this knowledge, we will discuss how scientists use cutting edge technologies to introduce false memory in animals or tackle diseases affecting learning and memory, such as mental retardation. We will visit an MIT research lab that studies the biological basis of learning and memory. Our goal will be to understand the strategies and techniques biologists use to search for the memory trace: the "holy grail" of modern neuroscience.


We will meet for two hours each week. Students will be required to read two papers each week and be prepared to discuss them in class. Active participation will be expected during every class period. We will focus on the principles of experimental design, use of positive and negative control experiments, and interpretation of experimental data. The final 15 minutes of each class will consist of an introduction to the next week's topic. In week 6 we will visit the laboratory of Professor Elly Nedivi in the MIT Picower Institute of Learning and Memory. We will tour the lab and discuss one of the lab's projects investigating the role of an activity-regulated gene called cpg15 in experience-dependent synaptic plasticity.

Course Objectives

The objective of this course is to help students learn how to survey, interpret, and evaluate primary research articles. Within this framework, we will explore the field of learning and memory and several of the key mechanisms underlying these phenomena. By the end of the class students should be able to:

  1. Read, understand and critically analyze primary research articles.
  2. Understand mechanisms that underlie learning and memory.
  3. Describe techniques used to manipulate sensory experience and to induce changes in neural activity.
  4. Describe different types of learning and how animals can be trained and tested for each type.
  5. Understand several ways to identify and measure changes that occur in neural tissue after learning or sensory experience.
  6. Design experiments using the strategies, techniques and biological knowledge discussed in the course.


Grading for this course is pass / fail and will depend on student attendance, preparedness, participation in class discussions, and completion of the required assignments.


1 Introduction  
2 Fundamentals of learning and memory: pre- and post-synaptic mechanisms  
3 Mechanisms of learning: activity-regulated genes  
4 Forms of Learning and Memory I: Procedural and Episodic  
5 Forms of Learning and Memory II: Non-Associative vs. Associative  
6 Lab visit — role of activity-regulated genes in experience-dependent plasticity Field Trip
7 Forms of Learning and Memory III: Drug Addiction and Perceptual Learning  
8 Learning through others' experience and observational learning  
9 Synapse formation and stabilization Written Assignment Due
10 Experience-dependent plasticity: Visual Cortex  
11 Occlusion of synaptic plasticity by learning  
12 Creating false memory, erasing specific memory  
13 Understanding a disease: Fragile X Syndrome  
14 Oral presentations and course discussion Oral Assignment Due