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Brain Scans May Predict How People Learn

FRIDAY Feb. 10, 2012 -- Researchers report that brain scans can help predict how people will perform a challenging mental task, a discovery that could lead to a better understanding of how the mind learns new things.

The researchers found that what they once thought was "noise" in the brain, like static from a television, actually plays a major role and "is very important for understanding how the brain does things," said study author Dr. Maurizio Corbetta, a professor of neurology at Washington University at St. Louis.

This means a brain scan has the potential to act as a kind of crystal ball, he said: "One of the most exciting things we could do is look at the brain activity and do more to try to predict what the brain is going to do next."

The study authors scanned the brains of 14 people -- seven men and seven women -- using functional MRI to measure bursts of activity in the brain. The researchers tracked the brains of the volunteers as they learned how to better use their peripheral vision through a computer game.

In the game, participants learned to detect the presence or absence of a tilted letter "T" in the lower left side of a screen while they were distracted by other "T"s. It took about a week for the participants to figure out how to get to the level where their responses were correct 80 percent of the time. This is in contrast to the level of about 10 percent to 20 percent, where some participants began, Corbetta said.

The game is similar to day-to-day life in the way that you have to figure out what to pay attention to as you navigate the world. "It's always a balance as to what you see and what you pay attention to," he said.

The researchers found that the level of connectivity in the visual-oriented part of the brain predicted which people would do better on the test and learn more quickly, Corbetta said. "If you have a visual system that is strongly connected, then you are more likely to perform the task well."

The research is important because scientists still need to better understand how the brain learns, he said. While people can train themselves to be better at specific tasks, skills don't always translate to other tasks, he said.

"This is a big problem when we do rehab with patients," he said. "We can retrain them on one task, but that doesn't always translate to real life."

Dr. Gary Small, a brain researcher and director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center on Aging, said the finding is interesting but doesn't have practical implications at the moment. The idea of predicting what the brain will do next -- potentially a form of mind reading -- is still far in the future, he said.

"That's the next step, to measure perceptions and ideas," he said. "I think that's in the realm of science, but we're not quite there yet."

The study appears in this week's online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information

For more about the brain, check Harvard University's Whole Brain Atlas.

Posted: February 2012


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