When neural areas more easily switch communication partners, learning improves

Peer inside the brain of someone learning. You might be lucky enough to spy a synapse pop into existence. That physical bridge between two nerve cells seals new knowledge into the brain. As new information arrives, synapses form and strengthen, while others weaken, making way for new connections.

You might see more subtle changes, too, like fluctuations in the levels of signaling molecules, or even slight boosts in nerve cell activity. Over the last few decades, scientists have zoomed in on these microscopic changes that happen as the brain learns. And while that detailed scrutiny has revealed a lot about the synapses that wire our brains, it isn’t enough. Neuroscientists still lack a complete picture of how the brain learns.

They may have been looking too closely. When it comes to the neuroscience of learning, zeroing in on synapse action misses the forest for the trees.

A new, zoomed-out approach attempts to make sense of the large-scale changes that enable learning. By studying the shifting interactions between many different brain regions over time, scientists are beginning to grasp how the brain takes in new information and holds onto it.

These kinds of studies rely on powerful math. Brain scientists are co-opting approaches developed in other network-based sciences, borrowing tools that reveal in precise, numerical terms the shape and function of the neural pathways that shift as human brains learn.

“When you’re learning, it doesn’t just require a change in activity in a single region,” says Danielle Bassett, a network neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It really requires many different regions to be involved.” Her holistic approach asks, “what’s actually happening in your brain while you’re learning?” Bassett is charging ahead to both define this new field of “network neuroscience” and push its boundaries.

“This line of work is very promising,” says neuroscientist Olaf Sporns of Indiana University Bloomington. Bassett’s research, he says, has great potential to bridge gaps between brain-imaging studies and scientists’ understanding of how learning happens. “I think she’s very much on the right track.”