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Human brain region functions like digital computer, says CU-Boulder professor

A region of the human brain that scientists believe is critical to human intellectual abilities surprisingly functions much like a digital computer, according to psychology Professor Randall O'Reilly of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The finding could help researchers better understand the functioning of human intelligence.

In a review of biological computer models of the brain appearing in the Oct. 6 edition of the journal Science, O'Reilly contends that the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia operate much like a digital computer system.

"Many researchers who create these models shun the computer metaphor," O'Reilly said. "My work comes out of a tradition that says people's brains are nothing like computers, and now all of a sudden as we look at them, in fact, in a certain respect they are like computers."

Digital computers operate by turning electrical signals into binary "on and off states" and flexibly manipulating these states by using switches. O'Reilly found the same operating principles in the brain.

"The neurons in the prefrontal cortex are binary -- they have two states, either active or inactive -- and the basal ganglia is essentially a big switch that allows you to dynamically turn on and off different parts of the prefrontal cortex," O'Reilly said.

The brain as a whole operates more like a social network than a digital computer, with neurons communicating to allow learning and the creation of memory, according to O'Reilly.

However, the computer-like features of the prefrontal cortex broaden the social networks, helping the brain become more flexible in processing novel and symbolic information, O'Reilly said.

The prefrontal cortex is the executive center of the brain and supports "higher level" cognition, including decision making and problem solving. Researchers believe that the prefrontal cortex is critical to human intellectual ability, and better underst
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Contact: Randall O'Reilly
randy.oreilly@colorado.edu
720-938-0523
University of Colorado at Boulder
5-Oct-2006


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