New research finds the brain is less flexible than we thought when learning

March 12, 2018 by Emily Durham, Carnegie Mellon University
Visualization of population activity patterns from an example experiment. Population activity patterns recorded before learning (black; from the last 50 trials under the intuitive BCI mapping) and after learning (red; from the 50 trials of peak performance under the perturbed BCI mapping), visualized as their 2-D output through the perturbed BCI mapping. Each point represents the cursor velocity that an activity pattern contributes to cursor movement according to the perturbed mapping. Credit: "Learning by neural reassociation,” Nature Neuroscience

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.

The research, published today in Nature Neuroscience, examined the changes that take place in the when learning a new . To truly see how changes during learning, we need to look bigger—at populations of neurons, rather than one neuron at a time, which has been the standard approach to date.

The research team used a brain-computer interface (BCI), where subjects move a cursor on a computer screen by thought alone. As with learning to play a new sport, they found that subjects learned to control the cursor more accurately with practice. They then investigated how the activity in the brain changed during learning that enabled the improved performance. They found that, on a time scale of a few hours, the brain does not reconfigure its neural activity to maximize the speed and accuracy by which it moves the cursor.

"In this experimental paradigm, we're able to track all of the neurons that can lead to behavioral improvements and look at how they all change simultaneously," says Steve Chase, an associate professor of at Carnegie Mellon and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. "When we do that, what we see is a really constrained set of changes that happen, and it leads to this suboptimal improvement of performance. And so, that implies that there are limits that constrain how flexible your brain is, at least on these short time scales."

When we're learning a new task, we can't instantaneously learn it to proficiency, in part due to the way in which the neurons are wired up in the brain. Learning takes time, and there are mechanisms by which neurons can change the way they communicate with each other to enable learning—some of which can be fast, and some of which can take longer. The team found that the brain operates under a more stringent set of constraints than originally thought, resulting in good learning on the short term, but nevertheless suboptimal performance in controlling the BCI cursor.

Imagine a whose friends have asked her to play squash. When she picks up the squash racket, it's lighter than the tennis racket she is used to, and it has a slightly different balance point. But since she's a good tennis player, this difference in rackets doesn't cause her to miss the ball completely. She adjusts quickly, but she hasn't immediately picked up the swing form of a squash player. To really become an expert, it will require a long period of training with the new equipment. However, her experienced squash-playing friends will quickly see that she is a tennis player, because until she's learned the proper technique, she'll be swinging the squash racket the same as she would a .

"Just as it takes time to train a person to swing a squash racket like an expert, it takes time to train one's neurons to produce the ideal activity patterns," says Byron Yu, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. "When faced with a new task, we're finding that the brain is constrained to take the neural activity patterns that it's capable of generating right now and use them as effectively as possible in this new task."

"When we learn, at first the brain tends to not produce new activity patterns, but to repurpose the activity patterns it already knows how to generate," says Aaron Batista, an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "Learning over the course of a few hours is suboptimal. When first learning something new, our brain doesn't seem to be able to change its activity in the best possible way to allow us to be proficient at new skills.."

Acquiring a skill is very difficult, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. But when you're first starting to learn a new skill, your brain has to adjust quickly to the new task. The researchers found that the brain is constrained to take neural patterns it already knows and use them for the new task. By repurposing neuron patterns the brain is already capable of generating, the brain applies a "quick and dirty fix" to the new problem it's facing.

"None of us predicted this outcome," says Matthew Golub, a postdoctoral researcher in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. "Learning is far more limited on the scale of a few hours than any of us were expecting when we started this. We were all surprised that the brain wasn't able to choose the best strategy possible."

The research was done in collaboration with the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-university research and educational program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that leverages each institution's strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior.

Explore further: Flexing the brain: Scientists discover why learning tasks can be difficult

More information: Learning by neural reassociation, Nature Neuroscience (2018). nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41593-018-0095-3

Related Stories

Flexing the brain: Scientists discover why learning tasks can be difficult

August 27, 2014
Learning a new skill is easier when it is related to an ability we already have. For example, a trained pianist can learn a new melody easier than learning how to hit a tennis serve.

Discovering the neural mechanisms of skill learning

September 26, 2016
Most people can swing a hammer, but most people cannot swing said hammer with the fluid speed and precision of a master carpenter. The difference is thousands of hours of practice and the systematic organization of hundreds ...

Brain-machine interface study suggests how brains prepare for action

February 16, 2018
Somewhere right now in Pyeongchang, South Korea, an Olympic skier is thinking through the twists and spins she'll make in the aerial competition, a speed skater is visualizing how he'll sneak past a competitor on the inside ...

Mice, motor learning, and making decisions

March 1, 2018
Early understandings of the brain viewed it as a black box that takes sensory input and generates a motor response, with the in-between functioning of the brain as a mystery.

Researchers gain understanding of why the brain makes mistakes

December 8, 2015
A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University investigated the brain's neural activity during learned behavior and found that the brain makes mistakes because it applies incorrect inner beliefs, or internal models, about ...

Songbirds may hold the secret to how babies learn to speak

December 19, 2017
The explanation for how people learn complex behaviors, such as speech, might be found in a new study of songbirds by scientists at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Recommended for you

Engineers decode conversations in brain's motor cortex

September 18, 2018
How does your brain talk with your arm? The body doesn't use English, or any other spoken language. Biomedical engineers are developing methods for decoding the conversation, by analyzing electrical patterns in the motor ...

Circuit found for brain's statistical inference about motion

September 17, 2018
As the eye tracks a bird flying past, the muscles that pan the eyeballs to keep the target in focus set their pace not only on the speed they see, but also on a reasonable estimate of the speed they expect from having watched ...

Mouse study reveals that activity, not rest, speeds recovery after brain injury

September 17, 2018
When recovering from a brain injury, getting back in the swing of things may be more effective than a prolonged period of rest, according to a new Columbia study in mice. These findings offer a compelling example of the brain's ...

Opioid users could benefit from meth-relapse prevention strategy, study finds

September 17, 2018
New research raises the possibility that a wider group of people battling substance use disorders may benefit from a Scripps Research-developed relapse-prevention compound than previously thought.

Fine-tuned sense of smell relies on timing

September 17, 2018
If you can tell the difference between a merlot and a cabernet franc just by smell, it's probably all in the timing.

Breakthrough in schizophrenia identifies importance of immune cells

September 14, 2018
Researchers from NeuRA and UNSW have made a major discovery in schizophrenia research that could open doors to new treatments, research and therapies.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Anonym502703
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
I've already presented much of what has been stated in the following publication from 19 years back Medical Hypotheses
Volume 52, Issue 1, January 1999, Pages 9-12

Reduction of redundant neural network activation during the performance of a task: a functional model applied to problem-solving strategies
Author links open overlay panelS.K.Gupta
Show more; IN addition-1.
There is much debate in the field of neural circuits. Specific debate focuses on consciousness and neural circuits. The debate relates to an attempt to find the exact neural circuits involved in the conscious experience.
2. We must continue to question...
What exactly must be done in order for any average human being to perform a task more efficiently so as to lead to an improved outcome in the performance of that task. How does the achievement of the latter involve neural circuits?
3.
An experiment has never been done before in this manner using this experiment within an experimental
Spaced out Engineer
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
Unintuitive, but something any lunk at the gym could tell you. Those first sets burn in quick, so form over function should take precedence for any beginning weight lifter.

Curious as to whether there is some sort of functional quantification for "new" instances of learning. Either by modal partitioning or by some sort of categorical recombination.

And yet not matter the number, you can turn a cat walk into a Jake walk with few too many ginger beers. Whether that is skill acquisition might depend on if you think loosing myelin sheathing is learning or modifying the underlying hardware...

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.