Scientists use neuroimaging to show how the brain learns mental skills

Movements become skilled and automatic with practise, so tasks like riding a bicycle can be performed without much attention or mental effort. New research by scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London provides evidence that the cerebellum, a part of the brain used to store memories for skilled movements, could also store memories important for mental skills - such as the rules used to interpret traffic light signals.

An MRI scan of the human brain

The prefrontal cortex, in the frontal lobe, uses problem-solving to establish the correct rules using attention, and the new research raises the possibility that the cerebellum then learns to implement them skilfully with little conscious attention, freeing the prefrontal cortex to direct attention to new problems.

This study, published today (9 February) in the Journal of Neuroscience, reports that brain imaging was used to scan volunteers during learning, and that in a part of the cerebellum known to be connected with the prefrontal cortex, activity changed from one practice trial to the next. The rate of change was faster for rules that became automatic more quickly. After practice, volunteers used simple rules quickly and accurately even when attention drawn away by a 'distractor' task performed at the same time.

Dr Ramnani, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway said: "The study adds to the groundwork for understanding cognitive deficits in patients with cerebellar damage and improving strategies for their rehabilitation. It also raises the possibility that the cerebellum might be used for the skillful, automatic and unconscious use of mathematical and grammatical rules."

Source: Royal Holloway, University of London