Researchers gain new insight into prefrontal cortex activity

Brain

The brain has a remarkable ability to learn new cognitive tasks while maintaining previously acquired knowledge about various functions necessary for everyday life. But exactly how new information is incorporated into brain systems that control cognitive functions has remained a mystery.

A study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the McGovern Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows how new information is encoded in neurons of the , the area of the brain involved in planning, decision making, and learning.

"In this study we were able to isolate activity directly from the brain, allowing us to 'see' what was happening in the prefrontal cortex before and after a new task was learned," said Christos Constantinidis, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and senior author of the study, published in the March 5 online edition of .

To gain insight into how learning a new task affects the prefrontal cortex, the researchers analyzed the of neurons before and after training for the performance in two short-term memory tests. Two monkeys initially looked at a computer screen while various shapes, such as squares and circles, were displayed, and researchers recorded the electrical activity occurring in the brain. The same animals were then trained to recognize the various shapes, and to remember whether two symbols matched each other.

Using of the neuronal recordings, the researchers compared data to assess what information was present before training and what new information arose while learning a new task. They found that learning was associated with activation of a small number of neurons that were highly specialized for the new task, while the same neurons maintained the existing information that was present before training.

"In essence, this select group of neurons was able to multitask by learning new information while retaining information they were already specialized for," Constantinidis said. "Our results show that although there was little change in the amount of basic stimulus information that neurons encoded before training, more complex information about whether the symbols matched became incorporated throughout the prefrontal cortex after training."

Overall these findings shed light on how new information is incorporated into the prefrontal cortex activity and how neural activity codes information, which should lead to richer theories of how the prefrontal cortex controls behavior and how information is encoded in neural activity more generally.

"We hope that our findings will help others who work with patients who have short-term memory problems resulting from strokes or traumatic brain injuries," Constantinidis said. "Computerized training to perform , like those used in our study, has shown promise in cognitive rehabilitation, and for treatment of mental illnesses and conditions, such as schizophrenia and ADHD."

Related Stories

Neural balls and strikes: Where categories live in the brain

date Jan 15, 2012

Hundreds of times during a baseball game, the home plate umpire must instantaneously categorize a fast-moving pitch as a ball or a strike. In new research from the University of Chicago, scientists have pinpointed an area ...

Recommended for you

Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep

date 34 minutes ago

Can we learn to rid ourselves of our implicit biases regarding race and gender? A new Northwestern University study indicates that sleep may hold an important key to success in such efforts.

Deciphering dark and bright

date 34 minutes ago

The human sensory systems contend with enormous diversity in the natural world. But it has been known for a long time the brain is adapted to exploit statistical regularities that nonetheless arise amongst this diversity. ...

How we make emotional decisions

date 2 hours ago

Some decisions arouse far more anxiety than others. Among the most anxiety-provoking are those that involve options with both positive and negative elements, such choosing to take a higher-paying job in a ...

Can we cure Huntington's disease?

date 4 hours ago

I didn't cry until page 123 of Lisa Genova's terrific new novel Inside the O'Briens. That's when 44-year-old Boston police officer Joe O'Brien tells his four young adult offspring that his "weird temper"; ...

Poor diet can cause Alzheimer's or Parkinson's in rats

date 5 hours ago

For several years, a researcher fed rodents in his laboratory a high caloric diet with glucose concentrations, which resulted in diabetes. By scientifically assessing what occurred in rats, Samuel Treviño ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.