In a study of healthy volunteers, National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers have mapped out the brain activity that flows when we learn a new skill, such as playing a new song on the piano, and discovered why taking short breaks from practice is a key to learning.
In the study, NIH researchers determined the human brain replays compressed memories of practiced acts in a repeated manner. This takes place when one is resting. The researchers conducted the brain activity study on a group of healthy volunteers. They mapped brain activity flow when people were trying to learn a new skill. It was observed that the volunteers retained memories better when learning a new skill by taking short breaks in between.
“Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, maybe just as critical to learning as practice,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the paper published in the journal Current Biology. “Our ultimate hope is that the results of our experiments will help patients recover from the paralyzing effects caused by strokes and other neurological injuries by informing the strategies they use to ‘relearn’ lost skills.”
Dr. Cohen’s team made use of a sensitive scanning technique, known as magnetoencephalography. This technique was used for recording the brain waves of over 30 healthy volunteers. They learned to type five-digit test codes using their left hand. They were shown a code and then asked to type it out rapidly within 10 seconds. They were asked to do this in quick succession with rest sessions.
Typing speeds increased after taking short breaks
In the first few trials, the typing speed of the candidates improved dramatically and reached a level around the 11th cycle. In a previous study, Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., and former NIH postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cohen’s lab determined that most gains took place when the candidates took little breaks and performed even better after they had a night’s sleep.
The gains were correlated with a reduction in brain wave size known as beta rhythms. In the study, the team looked for anything unique in the brain waves. Ethan R. Buch, a study leader said, “We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest. Several forms of memory appear to rely on the replaying of neural activity, so we decided to test this idea out for procedural skill learning.”
Dr. Buch developed a computer program in collaboration with former postdoctoral fellow Leonardo Claudino to analyze brain wave activity with typing patterns and speed. They saw a faster version of brain activity when typing was replayed during periods of rest. It was almost 20 times faster. They found out during rest, the frequency of replay predicted memory boost.
Dr. Buch said, “During the early part of the learning curve we saw that wakeful rest replay was compressed in time, frequent, and a good predictor of variability in learning a new skill across individuals. This suggests that during wakeful rest the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.”
The team saw the replay activity take place in the brain’s sensorimotor regions. However, they spotted activity in other parts of the brain, namely the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus. Dr. Cohen said the team was somewhat amazed by the final results. They did not expect the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex would be involved with procedural memory.
Overall, the researchers think manipulating replay activity when people are undergoing wakeful rest may be effective for developing new skills in them.
Dr. Cohen’s team plans to explore, in greater detail, the role of these early resting periods in learning and memory.