Brains Are More Plastic Than We Thought

Summary: A new Neuron study reports practice can alter how the brain utilizes sensory information and, depending on how the training is performed, the middle temporal area can be critical for visual perception.

Source: McGill University.

Researchers train brains to use different regions for same task.

Practice might not always make perfect, but it’s essential for learning a sport or a musical instrument. It’s also the basis of brain training, an approach that holds potential as a non-invasive therapy to overcome disabilities caused by neurological disease or trauma.

Research at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University (The Neuro) has shown just how adaptive the brain can be, knowledge that could one day be applied to recovery from conditions such as stroke.

Researchers Dave Liu and Christopher Pack have demonstrated that practice can change the way that the brain uses sensory information. In particular, they showed that, depending on the type of training done beforehand, a part of the brain called the area middle temporal (MT) can be either critical for visual perception, or not important at all.

Previous research has shown the area MT is involved in visual motion perception. Damage to area MT causes “motion blindness”, in which patients have clear vision for stationary objects but are unable to see motion. Such deficits are somewhat mysterious, because it is well known that area MT is just one of many brain regions involved in visual motion perception. This suggests that other pathways might be able to compensate in the absence of area MT.

Most studies have examined the function of area MT using a task in which subjects view small dots moving across a screen and indicate how they see the dots moving, because this has been proven to activate area MT. To determine how crucial MT really was for this task, Liu and Pack used a simple trick: They replaced the moving dots with moving lines, which are known to stimulate areas outside area MT more effectively. Surprisingly, subjects who practiced this task were able to perceive visual motion perfectly even when area MT was temporarily inactivated.

Image shows a multi colored brain.
Researchers have demonstrated that with the right training, the brains of primates will begin using completely different regions to perform the same tasks. image is credited to Pack Lab.

On the other hand, subjects who practiced with moving dots exhibited motion blindness when MT was temporarily deactivated. The motion blindness persisted even when the stimulus was switched back to the moving lines, indicating that the effects of practice were very difficult to undo. Indeed, the effects of practice with the moving dot stimuli were detectable for weeks afterwards. The key lesson for brain training is that small differences in the training regimen can lead to profoundly different changes in the brain.

This has potential for future clinical use. Stroke patients, for example, often lose their vision as a result of brain damage caused by lack of blood flow to brain cells. With the correct training stimulus, one day these patients could retrain their brains to use different regions for vision that were not damaged by the stroke.

“Years of basic research have given us a fairly detailed picture of the parts of the brain responsible for vision,” says Christopher Pack, the paper’s senior author. “Individual parts of the cortex are exquisitely sensitive to specific visual features – colors, lines, shapes, motion – so it’s exciting that we might be able to build this knowledge into protocols that aim to increase or decrease the involvement of different brain regions in conscious visual perception, according to the needs of the subject. This is something we’re starting to work on now.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: Their research was published in the journal Neuron on July 19, 2017. It was made possible with funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

Source: Shawn Hayward – McGill University
Image Source: image is credited to Pack Lab.
Original Research: Abstract for “The Contribution of Area MT to Visual Motion Perception Depends on Training” by Liu D. Liu and Christopher C. Pack in Neuron. Published online June 15 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.06.024

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]McGill University “Brains Are More Plastic Than We Thought.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 19 July 2017.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]McGill University (2017, July 19). Brains Are More Plastic Than We Thought. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved July 19, 2017 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]McGill University “Brains Are More Plastic Than We Thought.” (accessed July 19, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


The Contribution of Area MT to Visual Motion Perception Depends on Training

•Little effect of MT inactivation on motion percepts of subjects trained on gratings
•After training with dots, MT inactivation impairs perception of dots and gratings
•Choice probability is more correlated with neural sensitivity after dots training
•Spatial integration is greater when subjects are trained with dots

Perceptual decisions require the transformation of raw sensory inputs into cortical representations suitable for stimulus discrimination. One of the best-known examples of this transformation involves the middle temporal area (MT) of the primate visual cortex. Area MT provides a robust representation of stimulus motion, and previous work has shown that it contributes causally to performance on motion discrimination tasks. Here we report that the strength of this contribution can be highly plastic: depending on the recent training history, pharmacological inactivation of MT can severely impair motion discrimination, or it can have little detectable influence. Further analysis of neural and behavioral data suggests that training moves the readout of motion information between MT and lower-level cortical areas. These results show that the contribution of individual brain regions to conscious perception can shift flexibly depending on sensory experience.

“The Contribution of Area MT to Visual Motion Perception Depends on Training” by Liu D. Liu and Christopher C. Pack in Neuron. Published online June 15 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.06.024

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