10 Things About The Neuroscience Of Learning That We Didn’t Know A Decade Ago

Decade of Learning Neuroscience

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Neuroscience is a buzzword. Which is unfortunate. Trainers and consultants in the internet wilderness are eager to throw it around and slap it next to short-lived trendy terms, with little added value to show for it. Just think of your favorite elearning term and look up “the neuroscience of” it. Most of the time you will come across biased, simplistic, fake, or worse, outdated info. So we thought we would try to save you time and take you directly where it counts. Here is our check of real progress made by academic research, so hopefully you can get up to speed on the science.

It was an amazing decade for the research on the brain… of mice

A bit of a disclaimer might be warranted. A lot of the more impressive research, leading to flashy headlines, is the result of lab experimentation not done on humans. Naturally, there is a lot to be wary about, but also to acknowledge here. And don’t feel bad for these furry martyrs of science alone. All kinds of animals, from Drosophila to cows, routinely play a role in our quest for inner truth.

So just keep your whiskers on high alert for every headline. And for good measure (and fun), follow @justsaysinmice.

2013: Any post-Hebbianists our there?

It sounds sensible: Increased synaptic activity associated with a learning task generates persistent stimulation, and eventually synaptic efficacy, therefore outlining, if by broad strokes, the dynamics of brain plasticity. Do you have a better theory? It took 64 years for anybody to cross the chasm and point out the flaws of the 1949 Hebbian theory of neuroplasticity. In terms of an information processing perspective, synaptic activity does not eventually nor unmistakable lead to cognitive efficiencies and increased plasticity in every domain. So our first milestone of the decade is not a thing we know that we didn’t before, but something we thought we knew, but now we know better. George Bernard Shaw would be proud. Annual Review of Psychology.

2013: They put memories on a mouse

Optogenetic manipulation –that is, modifying and controlling cells directly through applied light– was successful at interfering with “internally generated stimuli” which, in association with real-time external stimuli, triggers learned responses. At a high level, we can see this as the mechanics of memory. While the process opens the door for encoding all kinds of imagery about past experiences into the brain, a more clear and present way to use this process for building “false” memories is as a conditioning technique. Then the brain will fill out the blanks. Science.

2015: We got a millimeter further in our understanding of sleep

We still don’t understand sleep. But we have amazing theories trying to justify why it’s so important. Volumes of dopamine hormone on the brain were, before the decade, known to correlate with plasticity, or the brain’s ability to adjust its own structure to optimize its response to a given context. Now, the regulatory power of dopamine appears to be modifiable. Sleep in particular plays a role in “optimizing” dopamine, by localizing its effects. As a result, depending on its location, sleep can promote memory as well as forgetting –an equally important skill if you ask me— during sleep. Cell.

2016: Is nothing synaptic anymore?

If the Hebbian school of thought is about to be put to pasture (it’s not), then we have to admit it: Learning is not quantifiable. At least not in synaptic volume or efficiency values. And as the consensus grows larger, so does a new avenue of questions opening a whole new perspective for the discipline. If not the synapsis, what is the fundamental unit of study of neuroscience? If no two synapses are alike, what is it within them that makes them different? Before you find yourself reaching out for the cloud of unknowing, take this quote to heart: “Memory persists despite synapses having been destroyed. Synapses are turning over at very high rates even when nothing is being learned.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.

2017: The neuroscience of learning starts at the spinal cord

It’s been said that part of what makes octopi so smart is their distributed brain, where information can be at least partially processed in the tentacles. Well us mammals might not have such multidimensional dexterity, but information entering the brain through the spinal cord appears to have faced some amount of processing beforehand. A poignant illustration came with the discovery of the RORbeta (RORβ) “interneurons,” located throughout the vertebrae, which modulate the amount of information that flows upstream. With a notable density of sensory receptors, these interneurons are involved in at least a basic pre-processing of signals, necessary for mechanosensory processes. Scientist argue this prevents information overload in the brain, and could play a role in issues related to over-sensitivity and pain. Neuron.

2017: Hippocampus low-key making emotions more complex

Prolonged analysis of electrical activity in the hippocampus, with instruments that detect a higher range, especifically low-range activity, is showing a richer panorama of activity taking place throughout the brain, as commanded by this brain region. Before the decade started, it was understood that the hippocampus was responsible for long-term memory fixation, and that the cerebral cortex is more or less responsible for human’s brain advancements, including thought, language and consciousness. As it turns out, the hippocampus plays a critical role in the integration of different areas of the cortex. The sustained low-range communication between the hippocampus and the different areas or the cerebral cortex are associated with memory enhancement. Prolonged interruption of such activity might provide a predictability factor for Alzheimer’s. The number one way to promote low-range activity in the hippocampus? Slow-wave sleep. University of Hong Kong.

2017: Meet Staufen2, the RNA-Binding Protein that could be sabotaging your learning

Have you ever dreamed of the ultimate learning catalyst? Some kind of divine aether whose presence would add perfect retention to your lesson? Well Stau2 is a strong candidate for the exact opposite of that. As an RBP, interest on it has increased along with the field of epigenetics, which allows us to think about the difference between genetic likelihoods and actual “expressions” or “transcriptions” of genetic information into the actual living entity. Its absence benefits neural plasticity, its presence is correlated to depression as well as impaired performance on memory, “spacial novelty” and associative learning tasks. Genome Biology.

2019: Connectomes’ fighting chance

Their unfortunate introduction to the hivemind, courtesy of a TED Talk, helped its buzziness as much as it impaired its scientific validity. It was only until last year where actual scientists found a way to taxonomize connectomes, that we can finally begin to consider its dynamics among the models of the brain on learning. One emerging connectome is the locus coreolus, identified as a norepinephrine supplier and therefore a fundamental brain function regulator. External stimulation leads to direct behavioral modification, with structural effects on the amygdala, responsible for instant emotional response. This direct intervention can directly effect how the brain reacts to sudden occurrences and assesses threats. “Chemoconnectomics” will play a relevant role in the coming decade of neuroscience, but only if it’s able to address the mechanistic issues from its Hebbianist origin. Neuron.

2019: After a decade of buildup, ENIGMA (Enhancing NeuroImaging Genetics through Meta Analysis) ends in a blurry cliffhanger

1,400 scientists from 200 institutions in 43 countries have been collaborating since 2009 to “break the logjam” in genetic studies in the brain. What started as a large-scale neurogenetic imaging study blossomed into a vast collaboration with over 50 distinct working groups. With 13 clinical papers comparing physical differences between “healthy” brains and those addled by psychological or neurological afflictions, it still a promising effort to some, but also outlines the risks of formulating research roadmaps a decade ahead, without accounting for the possibility of technology advancements. They might not been as common as they are today, but the promise of epigenetics and criticisms on synapsis-centric theories were there before the project started. PsyArXiv.

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