Neuroscientists propose new theory of brain flexibility

Nov 15, 2007

Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Marcel Just and Stanford postdoctoral fellow Sashank Varma have put forward a new computational theory of brain function that provides answers to one of the central questions of modern science: How does the human brain organize itself to give rise to complex cognitive tasks such as reading, problem solving and spatial reasoning? Just and Varma’s theory, called 4CAPS, is described in the fall issue of the journal Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience.

More than a decade of research involving functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans in hundreds of laboratories has yielded a tremendous amount of information about what parts of the brain are activated when a person performs various tasks. Some researchers have been tempted to conclude that a simple one-to-one relationship exists between high-level mental tasks and brain areas. For example, some believe that a specific brain area is responsible for a specific cognitive task, such as identifying a face.

Just and Varma, however, propose that the evidence reveals a more complex picture in which thinking is a network function — a collaboration of several brain areas that is constantly adapting itself, based on the task at hand and the brain’s own resources and biological limitations. The collaborating parts of the brain, according to Just, are like members of a sports team whose players substitute in and out of the action. 4CAPS (an acronym for Capacity Constrained Concurrent Cortical Activation-based Production System), proposes a decentralized process by which members of the cortical team volunteer themselves when their strengths are called for, but also permits less efficient but capable members to step forward when the primary player is injured or disabled, as might occur as a result of a stroke. Just and Varma have constructed a number of computational models to demonstrate this process, such as a model that understands English sentences.

A unique characteristic of the theory is that it can accurately predict the change in brain activation that results from some types of brain damage or disease. For example, if a stroke damages the part of the brain known as Broca’s area — which is located in the left prefrontal cortex and is involved in language processing — the corresponding site on the right side of the brain often becomes activated during language processing, even within hours after a stroke. According to 4CAPS, the same dynamic allocation mechanism that allows brain areas to volunteer themselves on a moment-by-moment basis would also come into play if Broca’s area were damaged, and would allow any excess computational load to spill over to the right hemisphere mirror site on a more permanent basis. Another example occurs with Alzheimer’s disease, where the damage to some brain areas causes additional “helper” areas to be recruited to perform a task, additional areas that are not typically used by control subjects who do not have the disease.

“Many brain-imaging studies have shown as the nature of the task changes, so does the set of activating brain areas,” said Just, the D.O. Hebb Professor of Psychology. “It is as though substitutions of team players are being made dynamically in response to changes in the game.”

“We credit this dynamic mechanism with the fluidity or adaptability of human intelligence, and with much of the plasticity that occurs with learning or with recovery from brain damage,” Just said.

4CAPS provides a framework for scientists and medical researchers to better understand nascent topics in neuroscience, such as how brain areas communicate and collaborate with one another during the thought process and how this can go awry. For example, Just and his colleagues have proposed an influential theory of autism, called the underconnectivity theory, that attributes the disorder to poor connectivity and hence communication between frontal areas of the brain and more posterior areas. The individual areas still have their specializations, according to the theory, but they cannot communicate as well with each other, and may develop a tendency to operate more independently of each. The theory also provides an account of what limits our ability to do multitasking.

“The thousands of facts that scientists have learned from brain imaging studies cry out for some sort of organization, some way to impose coherence, and ultimately to understand the brain system that is producing the results,” Just said. “The theory provides a new conceptual framework for understanding how the fluidity of thought arises from the dynamics of brain activity.

“As neurological issues arise in education, aging and development, and as a basis for a knowledge-based economy, it will become increasingly important that human brain function be understood by students, parents and educators, patients and doctors, trainees and managers, citizens and policy-makers.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Explore further: Better living through mitochondrial derived vesicles

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Looking for the best strategy? Ask a chimp

Jun 05, 2014

If you're trying to outwit the competition, it might be better to have been born a chimpanzee, according to a study by researchers at Caltech, which found that chimps at the Kyoto University Primate Research ...

Why dogs are the new darlings of cognitive science

May 23, 2014

This will be his earliest memory. Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until it ...

Large testicles are linked to infidelity

Jan 29, 2014

There is a clear correlation between the size of the testicles of male primates and the proneness to infidelity of females. Learn more about sex, sperm and infidelity at the anniversary exhibition Sexus.

Recommended for you

Student seeks to improve pneumonia vaccines

3 hours ago

Almost a million Americans fall ill with pneumonia each year. Nearly half of these cases require hospitalization, and 5-7 percent are fatal. Current vaccines provide protection against some strains of the ...

Seabed solution for cold sores

5 hours ago

The blue blood of abalone, a seabed delicacy could be used to combat common cold sores and related herpes virus following breakthrough research at the University of Sydney.

Better living through mitochondrial derived vesicles

Aug 19, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—As principal transformers of bacteria, organelles, synapses, and cells, vesicles might be said to be the stuff of life. One need look no further than the rapid rise to prominence of The ...

Zebrafish help to unravel Alzheimer's disease

Aug 19, 2014

New fundamental knowledge about the regulation of stem cells in the nerve tissue of zebrafish embryos results in surprising insights into neurodegenerative disease processes in the human brain. A new study by scientists at ...

Engineering new bone growth

Aug 19, 2014

MIT chemical engineers have devised a new implantable tissue scaffold coated with bone growth factors that are released slowly over a few weeks. When applied to bone injuries or defects, this coated scaffold ...

User comments : 0