Study shows how brain rhythms impact learning
The faster you move, the stronger your brain rhythms related to learning become, new research from Germany and the United States shows. Published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, the findings will help fuel scientists' understanding of how brain functions are instrumental in human learning and navigation.
Researchers, led by Professor Mayank Mehta from the Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States, found that a brain electrical signal called gamma rhythm, generated in the hippocampus, plays a crucial role in learning and memory during periods of learning and concentration. They used microwires 20 times thinner than a human hair and collected almost 100 gigabytes of data each day to get their results.
The faster the speed becomes, the stronger the gamma rhythm becomes as well. 'The gamma rhythm is known to be controlled by attention and learning, but we find it is also governed by how fast you are running,' explains Professor Mehta, senior author of the study. 'This research provides an interesting link between the world of learning and the world of speed.'
According to Professor Mehta, the hippocampus has the capacity to record facts and events quickly and temporarily. The temporary memories are subsequently stored in other brain areas when sleep ensues. Damage to the hippocampus in effect complicates the process of learning of new things.
Improving our knowledge of how the brain learns could lead to the development of novel treatments for neurological disorders including epilepsy and Alzheimer's, the researchers believe.
'Deciphering the language of the brain is one of the biggest challenges that human beings face,' the UCLA researcher says. 'If we can learn to interpret these brain oscillations, it may be possible to successfully intervene in cases ranging from learning disorders to post-traumatic stress, or even to mitigate the effects of cognitive decline with ageing.'
He goes on to say that billions of neurons are found in the brain; they are responsible for transmitting electrical and chemical signals. The nerve cells in the hippocampus encode spatial position information, such as space, through spikes which are the 'sharp pulses that constitute the syllables of their language'.
Lead author Zhiping Chen of UCLA says: 'You can imagine the brain as a large orchestra; the gamma rhythm is a continuously playing violin, punctuated by neuronal spikes similar to the beats of a drum.'
Brain signals are the result of multiple rhythms and neuron spikes blended together and coming from various regions of the brain. What scientists need to do is combine the data to reveal the brain's language and relate it to behaviour.
'The biophysical laws that govern a single neuron are fairly well known,' Professor Mehta says. 'What is not known is how those billions of neurons interact with one another and form the mind.'
Professor Mehta and his colleagues will investigate the link between psychology and neuroscience. Says Mr Chen, a graduate student in Mehta's group: 'Studying how the individual brain cells interact can explain how consciousness arises. The hippocampus is critical for navigation. Cells in the hippocampus encode position information, but to navigate, it is not enough to know where you are; you must also know how fast you are going. We concluded there must be a separate brain signal that encodes this speed information.'
Experts from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg in Germany contributed to this study.
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Data Source Provider: PLoS ONE; UCLA
Document Reference: Chen, Z., et al. (2011) Speed controls the amplitude and timing of the Hippocampal gamma rhythm. PLoS ONE, published 24 June. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021408
Subject Index: Biotechnology; Coordination, Cooperation; Scientific Research