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19 Nov 2019 5:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    Our brains may be less complicated than we thought

    Scientists are trying to understand how different parts of the brain work together. And new findings may come as a bit of a surprise.

    When Mac Shine was in medical school, he was frustrated by the paucity of stories we have for explaining the human brain.

    Stories about how the body works are important — not only for learning, but also for communicating, for example, to patients.

    But Dr Shine found while you might describe the heart as a pump, there isn't an equivalent way to describe the brain.

    "When we got to the brain there was a lot of hand waving, and a lack of those really simple understandings of the way the system worked," he said.

    Now a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney, Dr Shine dislikes the idea of seeing the brain as a digital computer.

    "We want to think about it in biological terms, and try to make sense of it biologically," he said.

    Dr Shine has spent his research career in search of a better story to describe what happens in the brain.

    And he's making progress.

    A more holistic view of the brain

    While much of neuroscience research has used scans to study the specific parts of the brain that are most active when someone is doing a particular task, Dr Shine and colleagues have taken a different tack.

    They've been looking at the brain as a whole, to identify any common circuitry that repeatedly lights up, no matter what purposeful activity you're doing — from wiggling your toes to trying to remember your childhood best friend.

    The approach is challenging because when you look at a brain imaging pattern it can be quite noisy and fuzzy, with lots of activity all over the place.

    But in research published earlier this year, Dr Shine and colleagues reported a special statistical approach had allowed them to identify special "repetitive circuitry" across the brain.

    These circuits are like well-worn pathways that give the brain quick and efficient routes to complete a task — a bit like those rat runs you use to drive to work to avoid traffic jams.

    In their most recent study, published in Neuron last month, the researchers took a closer look at how the brain's "repetitive circuitry" behaved.

    They set up people to solve Sudoku-like puzzles called Latin Square tasks, which use shapes instead of numbers, and slowly ratcheted the difficulty of the puzzles up and down.

    Dr Shine describes this as a "really cognitively challenging and taxing task that requires both focused attention, searching, switching between different options, hypothesis testing [and] resistance to distraction of the outside world".

    The researchers discovered that as the puzzles become harder — and the cognitive load increases — some of the pathways change.

    "So there's parts of this [repetitive circuitry] that are sensitive to what we would call the cognitive complexity or cognitive load," said Dr Shine.

    The pattern of the circuitry also changed when someone made a mistake in solving the puzzle.

    Guided by the thalamus

    The other finding is that when the researchers imaged a part of the brain called the thalamus they found it played a key role in controlling the well-worn pathways — a bit like a traffic cop.

    The thalamus is found deep inside the brain, sitting on top of the brainstem, but has got connections to the whole cerebral cortex — the part of the brain solving the problem — as well as other parts of the brain.

    You can think of the thalamus as kind of running the show and guiding it, said neuroscientist Matthew Kirkcaldie of the University of Tasmania.

    He was not involved in research, but welcomes it.

    "They've looked at the bulk activity of the system and said, 'Okay, well you know, we can't describe what every cell is doing, but can we say what the brain as a crowd is doing, what its overall type of activity is," said Dr Kirkcaldie.

    Fluid intelligence

    Interestingly, subjects in the most recent study who had higher levels of fluid intelligence — the ability to see patterns — seemed to have stronger repetitive circuitry, or more well-worn pathways.

    They had capacity to cope with more complex tasks, because the pathways in their brain were already more efficient.

    "All of a sudden if there's a bad traffic accident you just divert traffic around and now you don't have a traffic jam," said Dr Shine.

    We can see this in other realms of society too.

    "So we might say that the women's World Cup soccer players have really strong fluid intelligence in the context of soccer," he said.

    "They know they can just do things more efficiently than a non-expert."

    Dr Shine hopes this research will lead to a better story about how the brain works.

    He thinks that one thing is for sure: this "repetitive circuitry" makes the brain's working a lot simpler than we thought.

    Dr Kirkcaldie adds that showing how the brain is marshalling its resources in this way could have wider implications.

    "If you can measure that, you can look at drugs that enhance attention, or how people's thinking processes might change in dementia, or where the underlying problem is in dementia when people lose their cognitive abilities," he said.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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