Wait! Put down that drill! Trepanation’s not the answer! Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have reported a breakthrough that could speed up the way we learn and help in treating strokes, learning impairment, chronic pain, and tinnitus. (And it has nothing to do with letting anyone drill a hole in your head, so don’t be fooled by slick propaganda and expert shysters with shiny toolboxes offering Groupon discounts for trepanation services rendered. Some people have had to learn the hard way.)

Discovering that brain nerve cell stimulation allowed laboratory rats to learn faster wasn’t as much of a surprise to the researchers as a related effect: that, even weeks after the stimulation occurred and brain activity had returned to normal, the lessons learned while under the results of this neural stimulation remained. Team member Dr. Amanda Reed says: “We think that this process of expanding the brain responses during learning and then contracting them back down after learning is complete may help animals and people to be able to perform many different tasks with a high level of skill. So for example, this may explain why people can learn a new skill like painting or playing the piano without sacrificing their ability to tie their shoes or type on a computer.”

Accelerated Learning by Temporary Changes to the Brain
CC licensed (BY) flickr photo shared by dierk schaefer

Reed and her team believe this research supports the theory that the large scale brain changes brought about by brain nerve cell stimulation speed up the learning process by creating a temporary, expanded pool of neurons from which the brain is able to choose the most effective candidates for realizing a given task (such as learning a new skill). Once such a connection is made, constant stimulation isn’t necessary to retain the brain’s positive accomplishments achieved in this way.

Rather than looking toward the popular model of the computer network to parallel the way the brain works, the team believes that a more accurate comparison would be an economy or ecosystem that responds to obstacles with a trial and error methodology, adapting in directions that can’t be foreseen. A computer network, on the other hand, is designed to solve problems within certain parameters and can’t think outside of its own box when problems arise that are beyond its understanding. The computer will give up and display an error message whereas the brain may offer surprising alternatives to predicted outcomes. Understanding this difference is key to expanding on how this discovery can be best utilized for humans in educational and therapeutic settings.

The findings are reported in the April 14th issue of Neuron.