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Brain Cell Study Explains 'Eureka' Moment

Neuron activity changed suddenly after rats figured out something new, researchers say

WEDNESDAY, May 12 (HealthDay News) -- Learning a new way of doing something may take a while, but with an abrupt flash of understanding, nerve cells in the brain allow sudden insight, a new study suggests.

The goal of the research, reported in the May 13 issue of Neuron, is to show what brain cells do when faced with new rules about how the world works.

"The ability of animals and humans to infer and apply new rules in order to maximize reward relies critically on the frontal lobes," lead researcher Jeremy K. Seamans, of the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release. "In our study, we examined how groups of frontal cortex neurons [nerve cells] in rat brains switch from encoding a familiar rule to a completely novel rule that could only be deduced through trial-and-error."

The researchers wanted to know if neurons slowly or quickly change their activity patterns when a new rule comes along.

The researchers found that even though it took the rats many different trials to figure out a new way of looking at things, the neurons in the rats changed their activity in an abrupt way -- one that corresponded directly to the change in rodent behavior.

"In the present problem-solving context where the animal had to infer a new rule by accumulating evidence through trial-and-error, such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to moments of 'sudden insight,'" study collaborator Dr. Daniel Durstewitz, from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany, said in the news release.

More information

The University of Washington has more information about neurons.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: Cell Press, news release, May 12, 2010

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