Cognitive Training May Enhance Learning to Learn

What’s New in Psychology?

Cognitive Training May Enhance Learning to Learn     

Jim Windell

             It’s one thing to memorize what you want to learn and remember. It’s another thing to take what you have learned and apply it in new and novel ways.

            Merely collecting and remembering information may help you take tests at school or it may be invaluable if you are a contestant on Jeopardy! But memory alone does not enable you to learn how to learn. Learning to learn has more to do with the mechanisms our brains use to go beyond drawing from memory to utilize past experiences in meaningful and novel ways.

            And that was the point of a study conduced at New York University and reported on recently in the journal Nature.

            The point of an education, according to André Fenton, a professor of neural science at New York University and the senior author of the study, “Rather than using our brains to merely store information to recall later, with the right mental training, we can also ‘learn to learn,’ which makes us more adaptive, mindful, and intelligent.”

           To explore learning to learn, Fenton and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments using mice. The researchers chose mice who were assessed for their ability to learn cognitively challenging tasks. Prior to the assessment, some mice received “cognitive control training” (CCT). The CCT involved being placed on a slowly rotating arena and trained to avoid the stationary location of a mild shock using stationary visual cues while ignoring locations of the shock on the rotating floor. Following this cognitive control training, mice were compared to control mice. One control group also learned the same place avoidance, but it did not have to ignore the irrelevant rotating locations. 

           The use of the rotating arena place avoidance methodology was vital to the experiment, the researchers note. This methodology manipulates spatial information, dissociating the environment into stationary and rotating components. In previous studies, Fenton and other researchers had shown that learning to avoid shock on the rotating arena requires using the hippocampus, the brain’s memory and navigation center, as well as the persistent activity of a particular molecule that is crucial for maintaining increases in the strength of neuronal connections and for storing long-term memory. 

           Fenton explains that there were molecular, physiological, and behavioral reasons to examine long-term place avoidance memory in the hippocampus circuit as well as a theory for how the circuit could persistently improve. Analysis of neural activity in the hippocampus during CCT confirmed the mice were using relevant information for avoiding shock and ignoring the rotating distractions in the vicinity of the shock.

           It is noteworthy that this process of ignoring distractions was essential for the mice learning to learn as it allowed them to do novel cognitive tasks better than the mice that did not receive CCT. Interestingly, the researchers found they could measure that CCT also improves how the mice’s hippocampal neural circuitry functions to process information. CCT training improved how the hippocampus operates for months.

           “The study shows that two hours of cognitive control training causes learning to learn in mice and that learning to learn is accompanied by improved tuning of a key brain circuit for memory,” Fenton observed. “Consequently, the brain becomes persistently more effective at suppressing noisy inputs and more consistently effective at enhancing the inputs that matter.”

            The study’s authors also suggested that a greater understanding of this process could point to new methods to enhance learning and to design precision cognitive behavioral therapies for neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety, schizophrenia, and other forms of mental dysfunction.

            To read the article, find it with this reference:

Chung, A., Jou, C., Grau-Perales, A., Levy, E.R.J., Dvorak, D., Hussain, N., &  Fenton, A.A. (2021). Cognitive control persistently enhances hippocampal information processingNature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04070-5


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