Researchers found that learning stimulates our brain cells in a manner that causes a small fatty acid to attach to delta-catenin, a protein in the brain.
This biochemical modification is essential in producing the changes in brain cell connectivity associated with learning.
The findings may provide an explanation for some mental disabilities, researchers said.
In animal models, the scientists found almost twice the amount of modified delta-catenin in the brain after learning about new environments.
While delta-catenin has previously been linked to learning, this study is the first to describe the protein's role in the molecular mechanism behind memory formation.
"More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases," said co-author Shernaz Bamji, an associate professor in University of British Columbia's Life Sciences Institute.
Disruption of the delta-catenin gene has been observed in some patients with schizophrenia, researchers said.
"Brain activity can change both the structure of this protein, as well as its function," said Stefano Brigidi, first author of the article and a PHD candidate Bamji's laboratory.
"When we introduced a mutation that blocked the biochemical modification that occurs in healthy subjects, we abolished the structural changes in brain's cells that are known to be important for memory formation," Brigidi said.
The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.