How does the brain create sequences?

brain

When you learn how to play the piano, first you have to learn notes, scales and chords and only then will you be able to play a piece of music. The same principle applies to speech and to reading, where instead of scales you have to learn the alphabet and the rules of grammar.

But how do separate small elements come together to become a unique and meaningful sequence?

It has been shown that a specific area of the brain, the basal ganglia, is implicated in a mechanism called chunking, which allows the brain to efficiently organise memories and actions. Until now little was known about how this mechanism is implemented in the brain.

In an article published today in Nature Neuroscience, neuroscientist Rui Costa, and his postdoctoral fellow, Fatuel Tecuapetla, both working at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme (CNP) in Lisbon, Portugal, and Xin Jin, an investigator at the Salk Institute, in San Diego, reveal that neurons in the basal ganglia can signal the concatenation of individual elements into a behavioural sequence.

"We trained mice to perform gradually faster sequences of lever presses, similar to a person who is learning to play a piano piece at an increasingly fast pace." explains Rui Costa. "By recording the neural activity in the basal ganglia during this task we found neurons that seem to treat a whole sequence of actions as a single behaviour."

The basal ganglia encompass two major pathways, the direct and the indirect pathways. The authors found that although activity in these pathways was similar during the initiation of movement, it was rather different during the execution of a behavioural sequence.

"The basal ganglia and these pathways are absolutely crucial for the execution of actions. These circuits are affected in neural disorders, such as Parkinson or Huntington's disease, in which learning of is impaired", adds Xin Jin.

The work published in this article "is just the beginning of the story", says Rui Costa. The Neurobiology of Action laboratory at the CNP, a group of around 20 researchers headed by Rui Costa, will continue to study the functional organisation of the during learning and execution of action sequences.

More information: Basal ganglia subcircuits distinctively encode the parsing and concatenation of action sequences, DOI: 10.1038/nn.3632

Related Stories

Unconscious learning uses old parts of the brain

Apr 06, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study from the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet provides evidence that basic human learning systems use areas of the brain that also exist in the most primitive vertebrates, such as ...

Recommended for you

Know the brain, and its axons, by the clothes they wear

Apr 18, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—It is widely know that the grey matter of the brain is grey because it is dense with cell bodies and capillaries. The white matter is almost entirely composed of lipid-based myelin, but ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Rapid whole-brain imaging with single cell resolution

Apr 17, 2014

A major challenge of systems biology is understanding how phenomena at the cellular scale correlate with activity at the organism level. A concerted effort has been made especially in the brain, as scientists are aiming to ...

User comments