Researchers uncover basis for perceptual learning

August 2, 2006

The artist's trained eye can detect distinctions others can't; musicians pick up subtle changes in tone lost on the nonmusical. Brain researchers call these abilities perceptual learning.

Following up on an accidental finding, MIT researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and colleagues have uncovered a mechanism for this phenomenon. The study will appear in the Aug. 3 issue of Neuron.

The original idea was to look at how visual deprivation affects the brain. But before mice in the experiment were deprived of vision, researchers recorded baseline measurements by showing them a striped pattern on a video screen.

Unexpectedly, the researchers found that although no change showed up during the viewing session, as few as 12 hours later the mice were more visually "tuned" to the pattern they had seen. Over several sessions, the mice's brain responses to the stripes increased, with the biggest responses occurring to stripes the mice saw more often. The researchers dubbed this change "stimulus selective response potentiation" or SRP.

"The properties of SRP are strikingly similar to those described for some forms of human perceptual learning," said Mark Bear, Picower Professor of Neuroscience and co-author of the study. As a result, "understanding this type of perceptual learning is important because it can reveal mechanisms of implicit memory formation and might be exploited to promote rehabilitation after brain damage. Detailed knowledge of how practice changes brain chemistry is likely to suggest new pharmacological and behavioral therapies to facilitate these changes.

"Brain researchers have studied perceptual learning for a long time, but until now, there has never been any insight into the mechanism behind it," said Bear, who also holds an appointment in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

The researchers specifically discovered that new neurotransmitter receptors are delivered to synapses, the connections among neurons, in the brain's visual cortex, leading to SRP. Changes in the brain triggered by learning strengthen the synapses.

In the MIT study, perceptual learning occurred in both young and adult mice, implying that the ability to sharpen sensory perception is not lost with aging.

In addition to Bear, authors include Mikhail Y. Frenkel, Picower Institute postdoctoral associate; Nathaniel B. Sawtell of Oregon Health and Sciences University; Antonia Cinira M. Diogo of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro; Picower Institute postdoctoral associate Bongjune Yoon; and Rachael L. Neve of McLean Hospital.

Source: MIT

Explore further: Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

Related Stories

Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

February 16, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) found that people with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations tend to hear what they expect, ...

Study finds that a surprise stimulus helps people stop an action

February 14, 2018
Imagine reaching to pet your cat, and it hisses at you. How does your brain take stock of the sound and communicate with your body to pull back your hand?

Brainwaves show how exercising to music bends your mind

February 18, 2018
Headphones are a standard sight in gyms and we've long known research shows listening to tunes can be a game-changer for your run or workout.

Perceptual pathway linked with body size misperception increases risk of eating and exercise disorders

February 1, 2018
A new study led by researchers at Macquarie University has identified a psychological pathway that can lead to body size and shape misperception in individuals, putting them at greater risk of developing conditions such as ...

Your next hearing aid could be a video game

February 5, 2018
Roughly 15 percent of Americans report some sort of hearing difficulty; trouble understanding conversations in noisy environments is one of the most common complaints. Unfortunately, there's not much doctors or audiologists ...

New '4-D goggles' allow wearers to be 'touched' by approaching objects

February 8, 2018
A team of researchers at UC San Diego and San Diego State University has developed a pair of "4-D goggles" that allows wearers to be physically "touched" by a movie when they see a looming object on the screen, such as an ...

Recommended for you

Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools

February 23, 2018
Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving, rather than learning from what has previously been rewarded, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge.

Researchers use a molecular Trojan horse to deliver chemotherapeutic drug to cancer cells

February 23, 2018
A research team at the University of California, Riverside has discovered a way for chemotherapy drug paclitaxel to target migrating, or circulating, cancer cells, which are responsible for the development of tumor metastases.

The 'loudness' of our thoughts affects how we judge external sounds

February 23, 2018
The "loudness" of our thoughts—or how we imagine saying something—influences how we judge the loudness of real, external sounds, a team of researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU has found.

Study: Tinder loving cheaters—dating app facilitates infidelity

February 23, 2018
The popular dating app Tinder is all about helping people form new relationships. But for many college-aged people, it's also helping those in relationships cheat on their romantic partners.

Add broken DNA repair to the list of inherited colorectal cancer risk factors

February 23, 2018
An analysis of nearly 3,800 colorectal cancer patients—the largest germline risk study for this cancer to date—reveals opportunities for improved risk screening and, possibly, treatment.

Glaucoma study finds brain fights to preserve vision

February 23, 2018
A team of researchers, led by David Calkins, Ph.D., vice chair and director of Research at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, has made a breakthrough discovery in the field of glaucoma showing new hopes for treatments to preserve ...

0 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.