The ability to adapt to new environments has given humans an unmatched evolutionary edge in both colonizing and thriving in many corners of the world. Now, researchers at Vanderbilt University have identified a small region of neurons responsible for cognitive flexibility- our ability to adapt to new environments and concepts.
To come to their findings, the researchers measured neuronal activity via computer-simulations of real-world tasks. By regularly changing what was rewarded, they were able to identify how the brain responds to flexible learning.
The researchers soon noticed that brain activity heightened at every change, and diminished after confidence in outcomes grew. In particular, they noticed that a group of brain cells located underneath the outer layer of the cortical mantle in the basal ganglia was most responsive to flexible learning. They thus theorized that this cluster of neurons might be responsible for transitioning between formally and currently relevant information.
"These cells could be part of the switch that determines your best attentional strategy," says Thilo Womelsdorf, lead author of the study.
"Weakening these brain cells could make it difficult to switch attention strategies, which can ultimately result in obsessive-compulsive behaviors or a struggle to adjust to new situations. On the opposite end, if such a switch is ''loose'' attention might become ''loose'' and people will experience a continuously uncertain world and be unable to concentrate on important information for any amount of time."
Aided by technology, Lisa Monetaggia, Barlow Family Director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and professor of pharmacology, says their findings come from a 'technological revolution in neuroscience'. In helping scientists know where to look for specific neural pathways, it is now easier to use technology to control single cells with molecular and genetic tools, something that will further accelerate the field.