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Scientists capture images of brain in action as it's learning

Scientists in Toronto have captured images of the brain in action as it's learning -- an exciting finding that could help in the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries.

Remember the comic strip analogy of a lightbulb coming on in the brain to depict a person who learns and becomes aware of something? It's really a "pattern of lightbulbs" according to a study conducted by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

The study, published in the May 28th issue of the international journal SCIENCE has generated quite a buzz among neuroscientists and is being billed as a significant contribution to understanding how the brain works when conscious learning is taking place.

Scientists already know that 'learning' and 'awareness' is a function of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, part of the higher thinking region. Now the Rotman study has confirmed that it's actually several regions acting in concert.

"We found that learning and awareness involves a cohesive network of brain activity," says Rotman scientist Dr. Randy McIntosh, who led the study using brain imaging technology along with co-investigators Drs. Natasha Rajah and Nancy Lobaugh.

"It's like a pattern of lightbulbs coming on. Most of the action is happening in the left prefrontal cortex, but we confirmed that areas far away from the frontal regions are activated as well. They include the sensory regions that provide the visual and auditory information needed to do the task."

In the study, 12 university students participated in an associative learning exercise on a computer. They would hear two different tones and only six in the group became 'aware' that one of the two tones always predicted a visual event on the computer screen.

During the exercise, regional cerebral blood flow (which signifies brain activity) was measured in both the aware and unaware groups using a brain imaging technique called positron emission tomography (PET).

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Contact: Kelly Connelly
kconnelly@baycrest.org
416-785-2432
Baycrest
28-Jun-1999


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