Study illuminates the way we learn

A study co-authored by Diogo Santos-Pata, a senior scientist at Duke Kunshan University, has shed light on the way we learn.

Published in the science journal Current Biology, the research examined how the hippocampus and cortex areas of the brain work together, particularly during the replay of experiences in our minds, and how this synchronization might be crucial for learning new information.

“Our findings provide insights into the neural processes that underlie learning, potentially leading to better strategies for enhancing memory and learning abilities in both animals and humans,” said Santos-Pata, from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences at DKU.

Diogo Santos-Pata, a senior scientist at Duke Kunshan University

Santos-Pata worked with Caswell Barry, a professor at University College London, and Freyja Ólafsdóttir, a professor at Donders Institute in the Netherlands and principal investigator on the study. They trained rats to explore and navigate new environments and watched how brain cells in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, and hippocampus, an inner section of the brain, were activated. The study revealed that a subset of neurons in the cortex were strongly linked to a group of neurons in the hippocampus, and their co-activation appeared to play a role in learning. They also observed a link between the timing of certain brain activities and the learning process.

“The findings suggest that our brains have a specific mechanism, involving coordination between these brain regions, that helps us learn and remember new things,” said Santos-Pata. “It appears that when certain brain cells are in sync with each other, especially during offline thinking, it supports the learning process.”

Their observations also revealed that a particular type of brain wave called theta oscillations played a significant role in this process, “seeming to act like a coordinating signal, ensuring that the brain cells in the cortex and hippocampus worked together effectively,” he added.

When these brain cells were in sync with theta oscillations, it enhanced the rats’ ability to learn, suggesting that they could be a key part of how brains support the learning process.

“This could have implications for developing strategies to improve memory and learning in both animals and humans,” he said.

The research could advance knowledge of how to improve cognitive rehabilitation for people with memory issues and contribute to understanding and treating neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, according to Santos-Pata. It could also inspire advancements in neurotechnology and brain-computer interfaces and provide valuable insights into psychology and cognitive processes, potentially reshaping our understanding of memory and learning, he added.

Santos-Pata is currently working with Sze Chai Kwok, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at DKU, on similar research focused on Chinese hospital patients with epilepsy. This new study will “enable us to investigate how the human brain learns, forms memories, and how sleep mediates the storage of experiences and information into long-term memories,” he said.

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