Public Release: 

CU researchers: Brain activity boosts processes that promote neural connections

University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

AURORA, Colo. (April 6, 2015) - Brain activity affects the way the developing brain connects neurons and a study by researchers at the School of Medicine on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Children's Hospital Colorado suggests a new model for understanding that process.

In a study of zebrafish, scientists tested how brain activity affected the development of insulating sheaths on selected axons, which are slender nerve fibers that conduct electrical impulses between neurons. They found that, while the wrapping of axons was indiscriminate, the molecular and cellular mechanisms that stabilize the sheaths contribute substantially to axon selection in response to activity.

"Our study has implications for understanding psychiatric disease and ties into the current conversations about the changing adolescent and teenage brain," said Bruce Appel, PhD, who is professor of pediatrics, the Diane G. Wallach Chair of Pediatric Stem Cell Biology at Children's Hospital Colorado and senior author of the study, which is published in the April 6 edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

This study builds on previous research showing that white matter of the brain can develop by learning to juggle or play a musical instrument. The brain's white matter consists of axons, the long nerve fibers that conduct electrical signals between nerve cells and connect different parts of the brain together.

"We asked, 'What is it about brain activity that could affect white matter?'" Appel said.

In experiments, the scientists found that activity-dependent secretion from axons promoted extension and stabilization of the prospective sheaths that protected the axons. Without brain activity, the sheaths were able to form, but did not extend and were retracted at a higher frequency.


This study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, a gift from the Gates Frontiers Fund, a National Multiple Sclerosis Postdoctoral Fellowship and a NIH fellowship.

About the University of Colorado School of Medicine

Faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine work to advance science and improve care. These faculty members include physicians, educators and scientists at University of Colorado Health, Children's Hospital Colorado, Denver Health, National Jewish Health, and the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The school is located on the Anschutz Medical Campus, one of four campuses in the University of Colorado system. To learn more about the medical school's care, education, research and community engagement, visit its web site.

About Children's Hospital Colorado

Children's Hospital Colorado (Children's Colorado) has defined and delivered pediatric health care excellence for more than 100 years. Founded in 1908, Children's Colorado is a leading pediatric network entirely devoted to the health and well-being of children. Continually acknowledged as one of the nation's top ten Best Children's Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report and Parents magazine, Children's Colorado is known for both its nationally and internationally recognized medical, research, education and advocacy programs, as well as comprehensive everyday care for kids throughout Colorado and surrounding states. Children's Colorado also is recognized for excellence in nursing from the American Nurses Credentialing Centers and has been designated a Magnet® hospital since 2005. The hospital's family-centered, collaborative approach combines the nation's top pediatric doctors, nurses and researchers to pioneer new approaches to pediatric medicine. With urgent, emergency and specialty care locations throughout Metro Denver and Southern Colorado, including its campus on the Anschutz Medical Campus, Children's Colorado provides a full spectrum of pediatric specialties. For more information, visit and connect with Children's Colorado on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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