When observation no longer allows learning ⋅ Inserm, From science to health

Epilepsy is associated with learning and memory problems. At the Institute of Systems Neuroscience in Marseille, Christophe Bernard’s team uses an animal model to describe them and better resolve them.

An article to be found in the Inserm magazine n°55

Epileptic rats show a glaring lack of memory when it comes to performing a task learned by observing a fellow trained to perform it. Show them a rodent finding food in a maze, they won’t be able to find it the first time they enter the maze. In comparison, non-epileptic animals will find the food directly after observing how another rat does it. ” Animals with epilepsy are simply not able to learn a task by observation! And we have checked that it is not a problem of location in space or even an olfactory deficit “, explains Christophe Bernard, responsible for this work at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience in Marseille. In scientific language, these animals are affected by a major disorder of observational memory.

« It is well documented that people with epilepsy often have memory and learning disabilities. This would concern nearly a third of patients. But these disorders have not been studied in detail, taking into account the different sensory or mental components associated with learning.underlines the researcher. The originality of our work is to have focused on observational memory, the main source of learning that accompanies us throughout life. It is called upon in childhood to understand how to speak, read, write, play an instrument, follow a route, practice a sport… In adulthood, it allows us to learn to practice a new profession, to cook or to tinker. The exponential increase in online video tutorials, on all subjects, shows the importance of this mode of learning! Observation is constantly requested to learn new tasks “, insists Christophe Bernard.

Compensate with other forms of learning

The results of this fundamental work carried out in animals must obviously be confirmed in humans. But they are already opening up new research perspectives: “ Although very important, observational memory is not the only one involved in learning: there is mimetic memory, which allows us to learn by mechanically copying a gesture or a word, memory directed by oral explanations, remembering our own experiments based on reward or failure… However, in our experiment we have found that by letting epileptic rats repeatedly explore the maze, they end up finding how to access food. They therefore present other forms of functional memory. »

Understanding which capacities are deficient and which are effective in epileptic patients would help them to progress better. We know, for example, that after a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), it is important to mobilize certain regions of the brain to compensate for neuronal losses and facilitate recovery. The idea is to do the same thing in epilepsy: stimulate preserved forms of learning to compensate for the loss of others. ” The way is still long. But in the long term, this work could bring a real benefit to patients. », concludes Christophe Bernard.

Christophe Bernard leads the PhysioNet team at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience