Study: How Does the Brain use Previous Knowledge to Solve New Problems?

Source: Medical Xpress

Humans and animals ideally know how to deal with problems whenever they come across any. For example, humans walk into a store, they know what they are looking for, pay for it, and leave. Likewise, animals also know what to do in the presence of a predator. Or simply a potential mate, or when they are gathering food.

Generally, the idea of approaching a situation or a problem is through past experiences and acquired knowledge. Moreover, multiple studies have tried determining the neural aspect of the ability to apply past knowledge to newer situations. But many questions have still not been answered.

Researchers from the University of Oxford and University College London have shed light on neural processes, which underly the ability of humans and animals to adapt to new approaches based on past experiences. The paper was published in Nature Neuroscience and highlights how crucial the role of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus is.

The authors of the paper, Veronika Samborska, James L. Butler, Mark E. Walton, Timothy E. J. Behrens, and Thomas Akam wrote,

Humans and other animals effortlessly generalize prior knowledge to solve novel problems, by abstracting common structure and mapping it onto new sensorimotor specifics,

To investigate how the brain achieves this, we trained mice on a series of reversal learning problems that shared the same structure but had different physical implementations.

Studying the Hypothesis

When an animal is combating a problem, abstracted or schematic representation in the prefrontal cortex is linked with sensorimotor characters of the animal’s environment.  Furthermore, it allows the animal to develop a concrete representation of the finished task in the hippocampus. The same can be recalled when completing a similar task in a similar environment.

The researchers exposed a group of mice to multiple problems with the same abstract structure but a slightly different physical location. They recorded the single units in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus after this. Moreover, they examined the neuronal representations when the mice tackled these problems. Concluding that it was because of each trial in both the medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

As anticipated by the researchers, the mice’s ability to tackle problems improved with time, suggesting that they applied previous knowledge. Additionally, their findings also identify differences between neuronal representations produced in mPFC and hippocampus.

Sambroska explained

Neurons in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) maintained similar representations across problems despite their different sensorimotor correlates, whereas hippocampal (dCA1) representations were more strongly influenced by the specifics of each problem,

This was true for both representations of the events that comprised each trial and those that integrated choices and outcomes over multiple trials to guide an animal’s decisions.

The findings offer new insight into the roles of PFC and hippocampus and the ability of animals to tackle problems based on prior knowledge.

Sambroska said,

The data suggest that prefrontal cortex and hippocampus play complementary roles in generalization of knowledge: PFC abstracts the common structure among related problems, and hippocampus maps this structure onto the specifics of the current situation,


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