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State dependencies of learning

Bernstein Focus: Neuronal Basis of Learning (BFNL)

Learning is a complex brain function operating on different time scales, from milliseconds to years, which induces enduring changes of brain dynamics. At the same time, the brain undergoes continuous “spontaneous” activity shifts, which are characterized by rhythmic activity of various frequencies. Besides the most obvious distinct modes sleep and wakefulness, behavioral correlates include modulations of vigilance and attention.

Recent findings show that certain brain states, particularly during sleep are essential for learning and that oscillatory activity plays a crucial role for learning mechanisms on several spatial scales, e.g. in plasticity at a synaptic level, but also in hippocampal-neocortical communication. However, the underlying mechanisms and computational rules linking brain states and rhythms to learning, though relevant for therapeutical approaches, have not yet been elucidated.

Our research program studies the mechanisms of how brain states mediate and modulate learning by their characteristic rhythmic signatures. Our overall goal is the experimental identification of neuronal learning mechanisms and their theoretical basis, to develop tools and therapies that can be used to (i) improve clinical therapies for stroke patients and (ii) to devise memory enhancement strategies for the elderly.

To explore the critical interplay between brain states, brain rhythms, and learning processes, our research program comprises a wide range of integrated experimental and theoretical work in animal models and human subjects from the single hippocampal synapse to the large-scale cortical level.


The BFNL 'State dependencies of learning' is a cooperation of scientists at the following research institutions:

  • Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin
  • Humboldt-Universität Berlin
  • Universität Lübeck
  • Ruhr-Universität Bochum
  • Universitätsklinikum Leipzig