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Learning in the Hippocampus

Tracey Shors, Ph.D., neuroscientist, Rutgers University
Steven Weiss, sculptor, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Dolph Geurds, landscape designer, Sophora Design LLC  

How the brain enables us to learn and remember is one of the great mysteries in the neurosciences. Most learning occurs through the activity of neurons in a brain region known as the hippocampus. If the hippocampus is removed, animals, including people, cannot acquire and process many types of new information but can remember much of what they knew before. From this and other experiments, we know that the hippocampus is used for learning.

aViewed under the microscope, the hippocampus is a beautiful structure. Each hippocampus has three main sites where unique types of cells reside. The first site is the dentate gyrus, a place in the brain where new neurons are produced, a process known as neurogenesis. Thousands of new cells are produced each day although many die within weeks. These cells respond to learning and can even be rescued from death by learning. Information from the dentate gyrus then travels along mossy fibers, which are large slow fibers that also respond to learning. Information then travels to area CA3 and from there to area CA1. Most neurons have thousands of small protrusions on their dendrites which connect one cell to another. These structures are known as dendritic spines and their numbers increase with learning. Moreover, females possess more of these structures than do males, particularly at certain times in their lives.

In the installation, bamboo is arranged in the shape of a hippocampus with two sets of interlocking C’s. Images of cells that reside in each of three sites of the hippocampus were stained with color and are shown. Outside the hippocampus are sculptures of a male and female face. From their heads emerge tree roots that illustrate the branching of dendrites and the sex differences in microstructure that occur in the hippocampus.  

Perhaps not coincidentally, the times when these anatomical structures are most plentiful are times when animals learn best. It is as if the brain organizes a structural framework for future learning. These changes in brain architecture enable us to think about what we have learned in the past so that we can predict what will happen in the future. In this way, memories become less about the past and more about the future. 

A special thanks to Helene Sisti, David McCullen, Georgia Hodes, Benedetta Leuner, Jaylyn Waddell, Deborah Bangasser, Christina Dalla, Carol Edgecomb, Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy & Elizabeth Gould for scientific contributions as well as Ron Eckert at Taylor Photo. We also thank Peter Soderman & Kevin Wilkes for their inspiration and hard work.                     


Quark Park is being developed by Kevin Wilkes, AIA; Peter Soderman; and Alan Goodheart, ASLA. The World Hope Foundation has joined forces with this team to be the fiscal agent for the project. The World Hope Foundation mission supports self-determination in communities by bringing resources to community members and educational experts that are willing to step forward and enhance the lives of their children and elders. The Foundation is a qualified as a Federal 501 (c)(3) charitable organization and as such is eligible to solicit and support charitable causes.
World Hope Foundation
Web design and photos by Cie Stroud are © 2006

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