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Stanford engineer helps determine how the brain learns new tasks

August 2014

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Stanford have discovered a fundamental constraint in the brain that may explain why a person has a relatively easier time learning a new skill if it's related to an ability he has already mastered.

Published in Nature, the research details for the first time that there are limitations on how adaptable the brain is during learning, and that these restrictions are a key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn.

Understanding the ways in which the brain's activity can be "flexed" during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.

"This gives insight into the neural basis for the limitation on learning new things," said co-author Stephen Ryu, a consulting professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and a neurosurgeon at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "One of the clinical implications is that it may provide a more intelligent way to train new cognitive tasks."

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