How the brain decides to learn

How the brain decides to learn

New research has shed light on how our brains decide to learn – an area of study that has, until now, been largely a mystery.

The researchers from Stanford University hope that the study, which was confined to mice, may one day help to better understand how humans learn or even help treat drug addiction.

The study’s senior author Xiaoke Chen, an assistant professor of biology at the Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute's Neurochoice Initiative, said the results were a surprise.

“It was surprise in part because few had suspected the thalamus could do something so sophisticated,” Stanford News quoted Chen as saying.

“We showed thalamic cells play a very important role in keeping track of the behavioral significance of stimuli, which nobody had done before”.

The results point to several broader conclusions, said Chen.

Perhaps most important, other researchers now have a place to look -- the PVT -- when they want to study how paying attention to different details affects how and what animals learn.

Neuroscientists also now have a new way to control learning, Chen said. In additional experiments with mice genetically modified so the team could control PVT activity with light, the researchers found they could inhibit or enhance learning.

For example, they could more quickly teach mice that an odour no longer reliably signalled water was coming, or that another odour had switched from signalling water to signalling a shock.

Those results could point to new ways to modulate learning -- in mice, for the time being -- by stimulating or suppressing PVT activity as appropriate.

They also point, in the long run, to ways to help treat drug addiction, Chen said, by helping addicts unlearn the association between taking a drug and the subsequent high.