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friday :: january 7, 2005
   
 
brain plasticity: process sound in alternate way

Brain can be trained to process sound in alternate way, study shows. Scientists have found that the brains of rats can be trained to learn an alternate way of processing changes in the loudness of sound. The discovery, they say, has potential for the treatment of hearing loss, autism, and other sensory disabilities in humans. It also gives clues, they say, about the process of learning and the way we perceive the world.

Over the centuries, philosophers and scientists have put together a picture of how our brains model the world through the mechanism of our senses. Physical stimuli such as light, sound, and touch are converted by our sensory organs -- eyes, ears, and skin -- into electrical signals, which are processed by neurons in different areas of the brain. As those neurons fire, we see, hear, and feel. When the light or sound changes in intensity, our neurons fire faster or slower in direct ratio to the change. That ratio varies depending on the sense involved, but is constant for each sense: the louder a sound, the faster the neurons in the auditory cortex fire.

But now that picture has changed. Polley trained two groups of rats to become " experts" at discriminating between very small differences in loudness -- an ability that untrained rats do not have. He then looked at how the expert rats processed changes in loudness compared to two groups of untrained rats, and found that the auditory cortex in the expert rats contained groups of neurons that had become selective for specific volume levels -- they fired only at those levels and were quiet otherwise. This physiological change in the brain, called "plasticity," has been widely observed in humans and animals who have learned new skills.

Then came the breakthrough discovery: the expert rats were processing volume changes in a new and different way. In the brains of the untrained rats, the overall neural response rate increased as the sound got louder and louder, as the classical model would predict. In the expert rats, however, the overall response rate of the selective neurons increased until the sound reached a loudness threshold of 40 decibels -- and then leveled off while the loudness increased 100-fold, from 40 to 80 decibels. "At first glance, this was not good," observes Polley: If their neurons were not increasing their firing rate, how were the expert rats registering the increase in volume? David T. Blake, PhD, UCSF assistant research physiologist and a co-author of the study, cracked the puzzle. Instead of looking for a simple increase in firing rate, Blake measured the rate at which the firing changed, either up or down. This rate turned out to be in exact proportion to the increase in volume -- and at the same ratio as the firing rate increase. Tests confirmed that the untrained rats' brains were not registering volume increases in this new way; it had been learned by the expert rats as they became better at discriminating changes in volume.

Polley concludes, "There is still proportionality between response strength in the brain and the stimulus. But now neurons are much more selective, and can represent sound intensity with decreasing firing rates as well as increasing firing rates." This system is "optimal" for representing subtle changes in loudness, reasons Polley, because "it gives you two directions to change through," making it many times more responsive than a simple firing rate increase. "And it becomes optimized through learning."

From a psychological viewpoint, the study says something about how we acquire and refine new skills. When we speak of training a musician's ear or a painter' s eye, speculates Polley, we may be referring to the alternate sensory processing system employed by the expert rats. "This is implicit learning," he says. "How do we learn the skills that distinguish one tradesman from another tradesman? These processes are undoubtedly operating in these types of learning behaviors, and they most likely are responsible for expertise. We are looking at the neural substrate for these lifelong learning processes." >from *Brain Can Be Trained to Process Sound in Alternate Way*. December 14, 2004

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> neuroplasticity: the neuronal substrates of learning and transformation. 'neuroplasticity: transforming the mind by changing the brain. neuroplasticity refers to structural and functional changes in the brain that are brought about by training and experience. the brain is the organ that is designed to change in response to experience. neuroscience and psychological research over the past decade on this topic has burgeoned and is leading to new insights.' october, 2004
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imago
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neurons fire: open valve

sonic flow
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brain training [stream]
brain training [download]

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