"Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition," Graybiel said. "So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans."
The caudate (CAW-date) nucleus and putamen (pew-TAY-min) are involved in motor learning, but research has shown they are also important to the cognitive flexibility that allows one to quickly shift between tasks. The nucleus accumbens (ah-COME-bins) is known to process emotions associated with reward or punishment.
The researchers began with a basic question about these structures, Kramer said: "Is bigger better?"
They used high-resolution Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to analyze the size of these brain regions in 39 healthy adults (aged 18-28; 10 of them male) who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the previous two years. The volume of each brain structure was compared to that of the brain as a whole.
Participants were then trained on one of two versions of Space Fortress, a video game developed at the University of Illinois that requires players to try to destroy a fortress without losing their own ship to one of several potential hazards.
Half of the study participants were asked to focus on maximizing their overall score in the game while also paying attention to the various components of the game.
The other participants had to periodically shift priorities, improving their skills in one area for a period of time while also maximizing their success at the other tasks.
The latter approach, called "variable priority training" encourages the kind of flexibility in decision-making
|Contact: Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign