The Learning Brain is Less Flexible Than We Thought

Summary: According to researchers, when learning a new task, the brain is less flexible than previously believed.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University.

Nobody really knows how the activity in your brain reorganizes as you learn new tasks, but new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh reveals that the brain has various mechanisms and constraints by which it reorganizes its neural activity when learning over the course of a few hours. The new research finds that, when learning a new task, the brain is less flexible than previously thought.

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Learning by neural reassociation

Behavior is driven by coordinated activity across a population of neurons. Learning requires the brain to change the neural population activity produced to achieve a given behavioral goal. How does population activity reorganize during learning? We studied intracortical population activity in the primary motor cortex of rhesus macaques during short-term learning in a brain–computer interface (BCI) task. In a BCI, the mapping between neural activity and behavior is exactly known, enabling us to rigorously define hypotheses about neural reorganization during learning. We found that changes in population activity followed a suboptimal neural strategy of reassociation: animals relied on a fixed repertoire of activity patterns and associated those patterns with different movements after learning. These results indicate that the activity patterns that a neural population can generate are even more constrained than previously thought and might explain why it is often difficult to quickly learn to a high level of proficiency.

Source: Emily Durham – Carnegie Mellon University Publisher: Organized by Image Source: image is credited to the researchers/Nature Neuroscience. Original Research: Abstract in Nature Neuroscience. doi:10.1038/s41593-018-0095-3