Friday, January 06, 2012

Revolutions in Learning: A Better Reinforcement Schedule?

Researchers of learning have been looking into schedules for reinforcement and learning for quite some time. Now, U. Texas scientists led by John H. Byrne have returned to the Aplysia sea slug to write a new lesson in optimal reinforcement schedules of learning.
Byrne's team deployed a computer to model 10,000 permutations of intervals between pulses to try to coordinate activation of enzymes and to maximize their interaction. The optimal protocol, it turned out, was not the usual, even-spaced one, but an irregular series of two serotonin pulses emitted 10 minutes apart, then one five minutes later, with a final spritz 30 minutes afterward. With this regimen, interaction between the two enzymes rose by 50 percent—an indication that the learning process was operating more efficiently.

So should you be studying Riemann sums every other day for two weeks and then take a month off before going back to them? Too early to say. The timing protocol Byrne found may be the slugs' adaptation to lobster claws crunching their tails. Studying integral calculus might be a bit different. But the implication of Byrne's work is that the best way to learn may not occur in simple time chunks—and that leaves a meaty set of new research questions for neuroscientists to pursue. "The dream of cognitive neuroscience is going from molecules to behavior by way of the brain," says Gary Marcus, a psychologist at New York University, and author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. "This is a terrific step in that direction."

For their part, Byrne and company will now use these same techniques to try to optimize other aspects of the memory formation process in sea slugs. If that proves successful, they may eventually move on to humans. Motor skills would probably be the first target—throwing a baseball, doing the high jump, or helping a stroke victim to walk again. Science homework will have to wait. Researchers know more about the brain circuits in the cerebellum, involved with movement, than in the hippocampus, a locus for initiating the type of factual memories needed for organic chemistry.

Better ways to learn based on brain science would have enormous ramifications for educational practices. "It's not going to be an easy direction to follow because it means a lot of painstaking and detailed work to understand the biochemistry of learning," Byrne says. "But I think what it demonstrates is that if you have that information you may be able to make some big advancements in improving learning abilities by being in sync with the underlying molecular dynamics. Rather than taking cognitive enhancement drugs, you could have better training procedures." _SciAm

A sea slug is not a human, and yet an incredible amount of information about neural processes in sea slugs has proved applicable to higher animals, including humans.

This is how some revolutions begin: Lowly and slowly, then picking up speed and rising in general awareness and scale of application. These developments could eventually overturn the way that sclerotic and ineffective educational institutions operate -- which might just save the world.

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