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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1996 Jan 23;93(2):714-8.

Recruitment and replacement of hippocampal neurons in young and adult chickadees: an addition to the theory of hippocampal learning.

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Field Research Center, The Rockefeller University, Millbrook, NY 12545, USA.


We used [3H]thymidine to document the birth of neurons and their recruitment into the hippocampal complex (HC) of juvenile (4.5 months old) and adult blackcapped chickadees (Parus atricapillus) living in their natural surroundings. Birds received a single dose of [3H]thymidine in August and were recaptured and killed 6 weeks later, in early October. All brains were stained with Cresyl violet, a Nissl stain. The boundaries of the HC were defined by reference to the ventricular wall, the brain surface, or differences in neuronal packing density. The HC of juveniles was as large as or larger than that of adults and packing density of HC neurons was 31% higher in juveniles than in adults. Almost all of the 3H-labeled HC neurons were found in a 350-m-wide layer of tissue adjacent to the lateral ventricle. Within this layer the fraction of 3H-labeled neurons was 50% higher in juveniles than in adults. We conclude that the HC of juvenile chickadees recruits more neurons and has more neurons than that of adults. We speculate that juveniles encounter greater environmental novelty than adults and that the greater number of HC neurons found in juveniles allows them to learn more than adults. At a more general level, we suggest that (i) long-term learning alters HC neurons irreversibly; (ii) sustained hippocampal learning requires the periodic replacement of HC neurons; (iii) memories coded by hippocampal neurons are transferred elsewhere before the neurons are replaced.

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