Why do some people quickly regain their skills after traumatic brain damage, while others cannot recover for long? Jerry Chen and his colleagues at Boston University are trying to answer this question. They use their knowledge of what parts of the brain are used to process sensory information and memorize various skills. The study publishes the medical journal Neuron.
A team of scientists created a memory game for mice to study the function of two areas of the brain that process information about the sensation of touch, and the memory of previous events. These two areas of the brain they called S1 and S2. The researchers wanted to see if S1 and S2 were processing the same information (distributed processing), or whether the regions had specialized, independent roles (localized processing).
The mice got a memory game that gently stimulated their mustache with a moving device. For mice, the goal of the game was to recognize the patterns of mustache movement in order to receive a reward.
Each mouse felt the device move its mustache forward or backward. Then, after a two-second pause, the device moved again. If their mustache was moved in opposite directions during both rounds — for example, if the device first moved the mustache forward, paused, and then moved the mustache back — the mice learned that they could lick a straw to get a thirst-quenching drink.
On the other hand, if the device moved the mustache in the same direction during both rounds, the mice should not have licked the straw. If the mice were mistaken, they instead received a small rush of air and a timeout before they could resume the game.
Meanwhile, researchers watched the brain activity of mice throughout the game and saw how areas S1 and S2 influenced the skills of mice. They used the method of optogenetics, the method of genetic engineering, which allowed them to selectively activate groups of brain cells in certain areas using light.
Researchers found that the S1 and S2 regions of the brain of mice perform the same processing, often sending information to each other. But they also noticed that two areas of the brain performed specific specialized roles, while mice played a memory game.
Despite the fact that people do not have a mustache, experimental observations of a team can represent the same type of sensory information processed by a person’s hands.
Before these results help people suffering from prolonged loss of motor skills or other abilities after a traumatic brain injury, scientists warn that there is still much research to be done. According to the researchers, the volume of the human brain is much larger than that of a mouse, people may have more areas in which localized processing is performed. However, if the results are successful, this game can help people with brain damage.