Dr. Valentin Dragoi
Dr. Valentin Dragoi

It is well known that people learn by performing specific tasks over and over. But, how the brain adapts during learning is poorly understood.

New research by McGovern Medical School neuroscientists could help explain how brain cells or neurons process information to improve cognitive performance during and after learning.  Findings appear in the journal eLife.

Valentin Dragoi, Ph.D., senior author and professor of neurobiology and anatomy, has identified neuronal changes associated with learning in an animal model. He focused on a rapid form of perceptual learning that occurs within hours of practice.

“We observed an increase in neural synchrony when learning develops,” said Dragoi, holder of the Levit Family Professorship in the Neurosciences at UTHealth. “The observed synchrony stopped once the task was learned.”

In the future, Dragoi and his laboratory team plan to establish causal relationships between learning and the neuronal changes. Possible applications include stimulating brain cells to increase synchrony in order to expedite learning.

“The vast majority of studies aimed at understanding the behavior of neurons during learning have only recorded the activity of single neurons,” Dragoi said. “Here, we were able to observe the activity of larger groups of neurons.”

When there was an improvement in behavioral performance during learning, Dragoi reported that there was tight synchronization between the spikes produced by individual neurons and the activity of local groups of cells.

One of his main goals is to understand the part of the brain that processes visual information, the visual cortex.

“The relationship between neural synchrony and learning could be subsequently tested by electrically or optically stimulating neurons. In this way, neuronal activity could be more synchronized with local population activity, and this could lead to improved learning ability,” he said.

UTHealth postdoctoral fellow Ye Wang, Ph.D., is a co-author of the paper titled “Rapid learning in visual cortical networks.”

Dragoi is on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, a joint school of UTHealth and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Research was supported by the National Institutes of Health EUREKA Program, the National Eye Institute and the Texas Advanced Research Program.