Synchronized brain waves enable rapid learning

Why brain-wave resonance may be the key to learning, not synapses
June 17, 2014

MIT neuroscientists found that brain waves originating from the striatum (red) and from the prefrontal cortex (blue) become synchronized when an animal learns to categorize different patterns of dots (credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

MIT neuroscientists have found that as monkeys learn to categorize different patterns of dots, two brain areas involved in learning — the prefrontal cortex and the striatum — synchronize their brain waves to form new communication circuits.

“We’re seeing direct evidence for the interactions between these two systems during learning, which hasn’t been seen before,” says Earl Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and senior author of the study, which appears in the June 12 issue of Neuron.

“Category-learning results in new functional circuits between these two areas, and these functional circuits are rhythm-based, which is key because that’s a relatively new concept in systems neuroscience.”

There are millions of neurons in the brain, each producing its own electrical signals. These combined signals generate oscillations known as brain waves, which can be measured by electroencephalography (EEG). The research team focused on EEG patterns from the prefrontal cortex — the seat of the brain’s executive control system — and the striatum, which controls habit formation.

The phenomenon of brain-wave synchronization likely precedes the changes in synapses, or connections between neurons, believed to underlie learning and long-term memory formation, Miller says. That process, known as synaptic plasticity, is too time-consuming to account for the human mind’s flexibility, he believes.

“There’s got to be some way of dynamically establishing circuits to correspond to the thoughts we’re having in this moment, and then if we change our minds a moment later, those circuits break apart somehow. We think synchronized brain waves may be the way the brain does it.”

Humming together

Miller’s lab has previously shown that during category-learning, neurons in the striatum become active early, followed by slower activation of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. “The striatum learns very simple things really quickly, and then its output trains the prefrontal cortex to gradually pick up on the bigger picture,” Miller says. “The striatum learns the pieces of the puzzle, and then the prefrontal cortex puts the pieces of the puzzle together.”

In the new study, the researchers wanted to investigate whether this activity pattern actually reflects communication between the prefrontal cortex and striatum, or if each region is working independently. To do this, they measured EEG signals as monkeys learned to assign patterns of dots into one of two categories.

At first, the animals were shown just two different examples, or “exemplars,” from each category. After each round, the number of exemplars was doubled. In the early stages, the animals could simply memorize which exemplars belonged to each category. However, the number of exemplars eventually became too large for the animals to memorize all of them, and they began to learn the general traits that characterized each category.

By the end of the experiment, when the researchers were showing 256 novel exemplars, the monkeys were able to categorize all of them correctly.

Synchronized beta bands

As the monkeys shifted from rote memorization to learning the categories, the researchers saw a corresponding shift in EEG patterns. Brain waves known as “beta bands,” produced independently by the prefrontal cortex and the striatum, began to synchronize with each other. This suggests that a communication circuit is forming between the two regions, Miller says.

“There is some unknown mechanism that allows these resonance patterns to form, and these circuits start humming together,” he says. “That humming may then foster subsequent long-term plasticity changes in the brain, so real anatomical circuits can form. But the first thing that happens is they start humming together.”

A little later, as an animal nailed down the two categories, two separate circuits formed between the striatum and prefrontal cortex, each corresponding to one of the categories.

‘Expanding your knowledge’

Miller and former Picower Institute postdoc Evan Antzoulatos, who is now at the University of California at Davis, also showed that once the prefrontal cortex learns the categories and sends them to the striatum, they undergo further modification as new information comes in, allowing more expansive learning to take place. This iteration can occur over and over.

“That’s how you get the open-ended nature of human thought. You keep expanding your knowledge,” Miller says. “The prefrontal cortex learning the categories isn’t the end of the game. The cortex is learning these new categories and then forming circuits that can send the categories down to the striatum as if it’s just brand-new material for the brain to elaborate on.”

In follow-up studies, the researchers are now looking at how the brain learns more abstract categories, and how activity in the striatum and prefrontal cortex might reflect that type of abstraction.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Abstract of Neuron paper

  • Beta synchrony between PFC and striatum increases with category learning
  • Category-selective synchrony from PFC to striatum emerges after category learning
  • No changes in synchrony within PFC or striatum
  • Striatum exerts stronger influence on PFC than PFC on striatum

Functional connectivity between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and striatum (STR) is thought critical for cognition and has been linked to conditions like autism and schizophrenia. We recorded from multiple electrodes in PFC and STR while monkeys acquired new categories. Category learning was accompanied by an increase in beta band synchronization of LFPs between, but not within, the PFC and STR. After learning, different pairs of PFC-STR electrodes showed stronger synchrony for one or the other category, suggesting category-specific functional circuits. This category-specific synchrony was also seen between PFC spikes and STR LFPs, but not the reverse, reflecting the direct monosynaptic connections from the PFC to STR. However, causal connectivity analyses suggested that the polysynaptic connections from STR to the PFC exerted a stronger overall influence. This supports models positing that the basal ganglia “train” the PFC. Category learning may depend on the formation of functional circuits between the PFC and STR.