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The wave-like nature of skill learning

Posted on Aug 28 2014 | IANS

Washington, Aug 28 : Know why learning a new skill is easy for some while difficult for others? It depends on a fundamental constraint hidden in the brain.

According to a promising study, there are constraints on how adaptable the brain is during learning and these constraints are the key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn.

"We found that subjects in the study were able to more readily recombine familiar activity patterns in new ways relative to creating entirely novel patterns," explained Patrick T Sadtler from University of Pittsburgh's department of bioengineering.

"Suppose you have flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs, salt, and milk. You can combine them to make different items such as bread, pancakes and cookies but it would be difficult to make hamburger patties with the existing ingredients," she explained.

In lab settings, neural engineers from the Centre for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a joint programme between University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University trained animals to use a brain-computer interface (BCI).

The researchers found that their subjects learned to generate some neural activity patterns more easily than others.

The harder to learn patterns were different from any of the pre-existing patterns, whereas the easier to learn patterns were combinations of pre-existing brain patterns.

"Because the existing brain patterns likely reflect how the neurons are interconnected, the results suggest that the connectivity among neurons shapes learning," Sadtler noted.

Understanding the ways in which the brain's activity can be flexed during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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