Researchers gain new insight into prefrontal cortex activity

March 5, 2012
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."

Explore further: Neural balls and strikes: Where categories live in the brain

Related Stories

Neural balls and strikes: Where categories live in the brain

January 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 ...

Study provides potential explanation for mechanisms of associative memory

December 13, 2011
Researchers from the University of Bristol have discovered that a chemical compound in the brain can weaken the synaptic connections between neurons in a region of the brain important for the formation of long-term memories. ...

Shedding light on memory deficits in schizophrenic patients and healthy aged subjects

February 23, 2012
Working memory, which consists in the short-term retention and processing of information, depends on specific regions of the brain working correctly. This faculty tends to deteriorate in patients with schizophrenia, as it ...

Researchers show how memory is lost -- and found

July 27, 2011
Yale University researchers can't tell you where you left your car keys- but they can tell you why you can't find them.

Recommended for you

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cellular roots of anxiety identified

July 26, 2017
From students stressing over exams to workers facing possible layoffs, worrying about the future is a normal and universal experience. But when people's anticipation of bad things to come starts interfering with daily life, ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

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.