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Complex Brain Functions Help Adapt to New Situations and Stimuli

New research by David Badre, assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University, and colleagues at the University of California–Berkeley suggests that the frontal cortex may have a larger role in decision-making in unfamiliar situations. Their paper appears in the current edition of Neuron.

Scientists have long known that the brain’s frontal cortex supports concrete rule learning. Less clear is how the brain processes more complex and unfamiliar knowledge. In a paper published today (Wednesday, April 28, 2010) in the journal Neuron, a team of researchers at Brown University and the University of California–Berkeley tested whether the frontal lobe has the ability to process more abstract knowledge and how this ability could help navigate new situations and stimuli.

The researchers believed that the brain’s frontal cortex could be organized in a front-to-back hierarchy in which the neurons at the front of the frontal cortex have the ability to process more progressively abstract knowledge. This part of the brain, therefore, would be more important in planning and deciding what to do when a person is faced with an unfamiliar problem. To test this hypothesis, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study participants during two unfamiliar tasks, one with concrete rules and the other with more abstract rules.

“The average person can easily determine how to open a door by pulling a rope rather than turning a knob, even if they have not seen the rope handle previously,” said David Badre, assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown. “We wanted to investigate how the brain achieves this remarkable flexibility and test whether we use generalized forms of past knowledge to solve current problems.”

The researchers found that the activity in an anterior part of the frontal cortex predicted individual differences in participants’ success at discovering abstract relationships. Based on their observations, the researchers suggest that when faced with a new situation, people may search for relationships between context and action that involve multiple levels of abstraction simultaneously. This capability could underlie the ability to adapt behaviors based on the generalization of separate, past learning.

“How we face new problems and the reasoning, decision-making and action that we take in an uncertain situation may have more to do with the functional organization of the frontal cortex than we previously realized,” said Badre.

The National Institutes of Health provided funding for the study.

Anne Coyle | Brown University
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