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Prefrontal and cingulate interactions in cognitive control: reversible inactivation and electrocorticograms

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Studying learning to learn processes

Primates have a wide range of cognitive abilities. An EU project conducted extensive research with macaque monkeys to find out how advanced primates learn.

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In primates, cognitive control is centred primarily in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). As a result, primates are capable of complex cognitive processes. An EU-funded project, 'Prefrontal and cingulate interactions in cognitive control: Reversible inactivation and electrocorticograms' (REVERSIBLE COGNITION), used macaque monkeys to investigate the processes of learning and learning to learn, the resulting cognitive control, and the behaviours associated with these processes. The project's first objective was to develop and administer a complex task for macaque monkeys to test the use of cognitive control and to show how learning to learn processes can enhance performance over time. Second, researchers used a method of longitudinally recording the neurophysiology of the monkeys to show how brain regions work together during task completion. The monkeys were first given a task that was clearly cued when to switch, making it easy to learn. Researchers found that the monkeys vastly improved in their learning rates for new tasks over time. This phenomenon is known as a learning set. Following, the monkeys were given a more difficult researcher-developed task set manipulation. Even though there were no task switching cues, the monkeys completed the task successfully, showing that learning-set–like phenomena drive the acquisition of cognitive flexibility and learning to learn. Brain recordings taken during task completion showed oscillations around the PFC and parietal regions, which supports other research implicating these areas in cognitive control. The final part of the project will link these results with targeted reversible brain lesions to reveal which brain regions of the learning interaction are crucial for task performance. These findings have the potential to enhance understanding of the numerous diseases that impact cognitive control. Knowledge of these processes may guide research on brain diseases and how patients with brain injury or disease can be rehabilitated.

Keywords

Learning to learn, primates, cognitive abilities, macaque monkeys, cognitive control, prefrontal cortex, cognitive processes, cingulate interactions, reversible inactivation, electrocorticograms, learning set, cognitive flexibility

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