Brain waves reflect different types of learning

Figuring out how to pedal a bike and memorizing the rules of chess require two different types of learning, and now for the first time, researchers have been able to distinguish each type of learning by the brain-wave patterns it produces.

These distinct neural signatures could guide scientists as they study the underlying neurobiology of how we both learn motor skills and work through complex cognitive tasks, says Earl K. Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the Oct. 11 edition of Neuron.

When neurons fire, they produce electrical signals that combine to form brain waves that oscillate at different frequencies. “Our ultimate goal is to help people with learning and memory deficits,” notes Miller. “We might find a way to stimulate the human brain or optimize training techniques to mitigate those deficits.”

The neural signatures could help identify changes in learning strategies that occur in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, with an eye to diagnosing these diseases earlier or enhancing certain types of learning to help patients cope with the disorder, says Roman F. Loonis, a graduate student in the Miller Lab and first author of the paper. Picower Institute research scientist Scott L. Brincat and former MIT postdoc Evan G. Antzoulatos, now at the University of California at Davis, are co-authors.

Explicit versus implicit learning

Scientists used to think all learning was the same, Miller explains, until they learned about patients such as the famous Henry Molaison or “H.M.,” who developed severe amnesia in 1953 after having part of his brain removed in an operation to control his epileptic seizures. Molaison couldn’t remember eating breakfast a few minutes after the meal, but he was able to learn and retain motor skills that he learned, such as tracing objects like a five-pointed star…

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