Neuroscientists identify the brain cells that help humans adapt to change
There are 86 billion neurons, or cells, in the human brain. Of these, an infinitely small portion of them handle cognitive flexibility—our ability to adjust to new environments and concepts.
A team of researchers with interdisciplinary expertise in psychology, informatics (the application of information science to solve problems with data) and engineering along with the Vanderbilt Brain Institute (VBI) gained critical insights into one of the biggest mysteries in neuroscience, identifying the location and critical nature of these neurons.
The article was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) on July 13. The discovery presents an opportunity to enhance researchers’ understanding and treatment of mental illnesses rooted in cognitive flexibility.
Brain circuits created by these neurons have led to an evolutionary advantage in the ability of humans to adapt to changing environments. When these neurons are weakened, people may have trouble adjusting to changes in their environment including difficulty in overcoming traditions, biases and fears. Typically, people oscillate between repeating rewarding behavior and exploring newer and potentially better rewards. The cost-benefit ratio of repeating to exploring is an equation that the brain is constantly working to resolve, particularly when there are changes to a person’s environment. A lack of cognitive flexibility results in debilitating mental conditions.