How Does the Brain Learn?
As humans, we learn continuously, from the time we take our first breath until we take our last. We learn about rewarding events, like what constitutes a good bottle of wine and where to get it, and about unpleasant events and how to avoid them. And we learn seemingly ordinary bits of information, like the colour of our neighbour’s door. Often, in our ever-changing environment, information we have learned in the past can become irrelevant. But to adapt to new situations, we must keep learning. The question is: How does that happen?
It turns out that the more unexpected or surprising an event is, the more easily we learn about it. Dr. Mihaela Iordanova, Canada Research Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience, is trying to understand how the brain processes surprising events in all three of the above situations—that is, in rewarding, unpleasant, and seemingly inconsequential settings (known in neuroscience as appetitive, aversive and neutral settings, respectively).
Iordanova and her research team use a variety of cutting-edge scientific techniques in conjunction with theoretically driven behaviour designs to uncover which brain circuits process this information. They are figuring out how neurons in the brain process information in real-time, as well as whether subsets of neurons are critical to specific aspects of learning.
Iordanova’s research will provide insights into how appetitive, aversive and emotionally neutral processes can go awry in the presence of certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety, addiction or memory dysfunction, and may serve as a springboard to developing better treatments.