April 20, 2011

Brains that switch between active areas more often learn faster

(April 20, 2011)  The “flexibility” of a person’s brain — how much different areas of the brain link up in different combinations — can be used to predict how fast someone will learn, according to research by an international team from Oxford University, UC Santa Barbara, and UNC Chapel Hill.

The team ran an experiment over 3 sessions in which 18 volunteers had to push a series of buttons as fast as possible. They then divided functional MRI images of each volunteer’s brain into 112 different regions and analyzed how these different areas were active together while they performed the task.

They found that people with more “flexible” brains, whose brain regions switched active areas more often, were faster at learning the motor tasks.

“It’s the first time that anyone has defined this concept of ‘flexibility’ in the brain: how brain regions ‘light up’ together in different combinations. We’ve been able to show that how much these areas ‘swap partners’ in one session can predict how fast people will perform a task in a later session,” said Dr Mason Porter of Oxford University’s Mathematical Institute, an author of the report. “It suggests that in order to learn, the networks of our brains have to be flexible.”

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