Conventional thought is that the human brain is ‘hardwired’ to perform particular tasks, accessing a set network of tools to solve problems or enact certain behaviours in a way that is largely the same between different people. However, a new study from Western University and published in The Journal of Neuroscience turns this on its head, showing that the brain is not hardwired and, in fact, much more fluid in how it carries the functions we do everyday – knowledge that could alter future treatment of brain diseases.
Western researcher J. Bruce Morton, in collaboration with Western graduate R. Matthew Hutchison, now at Harvard University, tested 51 individuals ranging from 9 to 34 years of age by asking them to complete tasks while scanning their brains in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. After analyzing the scans, Morton found that the parts of the brain working to complete the tasks were constantly shifting and not simply “on or off.”
“Conventional thinking views the brain like a road map of a city,” explains Morton, a researcher at Western’s Brain and Mind Institute. “Different destinations are the regions of the brain and the roads would be brain pathways that connect them together to share information. Now imagine taking long time-lapse photos of major roadways. By blurring together all the times, you would miss things like the rush-hour traffic that changes directions at the end of the workday or the decrease in volume during the weekends. We do the same thing in most brain studies and this has led to the idea that activity is hardwired.”
By viewing the brain like a movie instead of a photo, Morton’s research shows that what actually happens in the human brain is much less rigid, not only from person to person, but also within the same individual. Each time our brain is presented with a task, we shift the patterns of working regions in real time – continuously drawing on different sets of brain areas. The types of patterns were related to the age of the subject, possibly explaining why adults perform tasks differently than children – especially tasks related to controlling behaviour.
The findings raise new, thought-provoking questions about how the brain functions, solves problems, and determines how to respond or behave.
“Discovering that the brain’s function is much more variable, evolving, and dynamic than we previously thought has far-reaching implications,” says Morton. “We as researchers will need to rethink our understanding of brain development, cognition, and especially brain diseases.”
He extends the road map analogy to say that, “we now have the ability to see when the brain has a ‘traffic jam’ and this could be the critical link in proving individually tailored treatment options to a variety of mental illnesses ranging from ADHD to schizophrenia.”
Morton and his collaborators are continuing to pursue this new area of neuroscience at Western, a world-leading university in brain imaging research.
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