Scientists can now ‘see’ how brain learns and stores info. Neuroscientist predicts results of study could establish foundation for brain researchers to determine how brain learns & translates specific words and visuals into concepts.

Recent advances in brain imaging technology have enabled researches at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to literally ‘see’ how the brain develops concepts about objects.

It is now no longer a mystery how concrete objects are coded in the brain to be identified later. This makes it possible to interpret, using an individual’s brain activation signature, what object he or she is thinking of.

This unique research has successfully fused the concepts of instructional innovation and brain science. The study used two of CMU’s initiatives: BrainHub (deals with how complex behaviours occur with respect to brain activity and structure) and the Simon Initiative (focuses on the improvement of learning outcomes by combining several aspects of research in learning sciences).

CMU scientists are using this neural imaging breakthrough to teach people how to create new concepts and codes about visual objects, and are watching the new representations develop. The study was published in Human Brain Mapping, documenting – for the first time – the development of a newly acquired concept within the brain, and the fact that this formation occurs in the same areas of the brain for every individual.

To help understand the advancement made, leading neuroscientist Marcel Just (D.O. Hebb University Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences) quoted the 2013 story of the carnivore Olinguito that ate mainly fruits and lived in treetops.

“Millions of people read the information about the Olinguito, and in doing so, permanently changed their own brains,” said the neuroscientist. “Our research happened to be examining this process precisely at that time in a laboratory setting. When people learned that the Olinguito ate mainly fruit instead of meat, a region of their left inferior frontal gyrus, as well as several other areas, stored the new information according to its own code.”

Just explained further, “This new knowledge became encoded in the same brain areas in every person that learned the new information, because all brains appear to use the same filing system.”

For this particular study, Andrew Bauer (Ph.D student in psychology and lead author), along with Just chose 16 participants and taught them information about the diet and habitat of eight extinct animals. The idea was to monitor the development of their neural representations of these newly learned concepts via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Based on previous researches, the team knew exactly which part of the brain to focus on. Concepts about habitat and diet were seen to exist in specific regions of the brain that were common in all the participants. As the tutorial proceeded, the level of activity in the diet and habitat regions of the brain changed.

Results revealed that for each of the eight animals, the concepts perceived by the brain formed a unique activation signature, making it feasible for a computer program to effectively establish which concept was being thought about at a particular time. It was also noted that similar concepts regarding some animals developed into similar activation signals. This concludes that these signals are not just random patterns, and are highly significant and interpretable.

Another very important finding showed that once a piece of information was learned, the concept remained intact inside the brain. Even as new concepts were learned, the earlier information patters were not disrupted. This supports the concept of relative neural durability of learning.

Just predicts that the results of this study could establish a foundation for brain researchers to determine how specific words and visuals are translated into concepts by the brain. This could eventually lead to an understanding of how complicated concepts are learned. FMRI patterns could be assessed to see which concepts are misunderstood and what improvements need to be made in the method of instruction. Moreover, it may also be possible to understand how stored information is lost in disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, by reversing the process of this study.